Lamenting “pain and anger” over the two-decade Afghanistan war, the Pentagon’s top two officials acknowledged the end of a losing mission Wednesday while vowing to continue the rescue of Americans and Afghan allies left behind in the ravaged country. The war is over, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin Jr. said. However, the messy and quick conclusion has unleashed a flood of conflicting emotions.
“These have been incredibly emotional and trying days, and indeed years,” said Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an Afghanistan veteran.
” We are all confronted with emotions of pain, anger, sadness and pride, as well as with pride and resilience,” stated Milley, the top military commander in the country.
The men also acknowledged the United States’ unwavering enemy, the Taliban, in the most open way they have ever done so. Austin and Milley claimed that the fighters of the extremist group helped Americans and others pass security checkpoints at airports.
“War is about doing what’s necessary to minimize risk and to force the mission or force to succeed, not what you want to do,” Milley stated.
Milley insisted the group is a “ruthless” organization whose ulterior motives remain suspect. However, when asked whether the U.S. and Taliban might cooperate on counter-terrorism operations targeting, for example, the Islamic State militant group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, he said it was “possible.”
ISIS-K, as that terrorist group is known, is a rival to the Taliban and has been blamed for several deadly attacks in Afghanistan recently, including the bombing of a girls’ school and maternity ward in a Shiite minority neighborhood, as well as last week’s devastating suicide attack in Kabul that killed 13 U.S. military service members and at least 170 Afghans.
These were the first public comments by the U.S. military leadership since the withdrawal from Afghanistan concluded Monday, closing the curtain on a 20-year war that cost tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars but whose gains — such as civil rights and a counter to terrorism — remain in doubt.
” War is hard. It’s vicious. It is brutal. Milley made unusually harsh comments about the subject. Yes, we all feel pain and anger. When we see what has unfolded over the last 20 years and over the last 20 days, that creates pain and anger.”
Austin and Milley defended a U.S. drone strike and said the Pentagon was investigating reports that it had killed Afghan civilians. Milley stated that the strike against an ISIS K operative who planned a bombing at Kabul’s airport killed at most one terrorist.
U.S. military officials blame a “secondary blast” for collateral damage, including civilian deaths. Family members from the Kabul civilians claimed that they were killed in a missile fired by a drone.
Officials from the administration said Wednesday that after the withdrawal of the military forces was completed and the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the State Department took over rescue operations.
Rather than focusing on the return to power by the Taliban, which the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to unseat, U.S. officials in the aftermath of the hasty withdrawal were emphasizing what they called the “unprecedented” and “historic” evacuation mission that rescued more than 124,000 civilians — mostly Afghans and about 6,000 U.S. citizens.
As many as 200 Americans may remain in Afghanistan, including blue-passport-holders who in some cases have up to 30 extended family members who could not leave, a senior State Department official said. Officials said that both Americans and Afghans will likely leave overland via Pakistan if they still wish to leave.
“There is no deadline” for Americans and Afghan allies who wish to leave Afghanistan, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, Victoria Nuland, said Wednesday.
Another official, who oversaw much of the evacuation operation but whom State Department officials refused to identify publicly, acknowledged that the “majority” of Afghans who worked for U.S. and Western entities as interpreters, cooks and secretaries, and whose lives are in danger under Taliban rule, were not evacuated. He described the complexity of paperwork and the checkpoints that were manned by U.S., Taliban and Afghan forces. This created a bottleneck which made it difficult for people to escape.
Deciding who to let into the airport and who to turn away was a difficult decision, the official stated.
“Everyone who lived it is haunted by the choices we had to make, and the people we could not help,” the official said. The official was one of many U.S. diplomats, civil servants, and civilians who were sent to Afghanistan to help people escape. Many spent their days and nights in secret offices at the State Department in Washington, contacting Americans and other Afghans. John Bass, the former Ambassador to Afghanistan, was returned to Kabul to direct the operation.
“In two weeks we had to evacuate the human face of 20 years of commitment and investment” in Afghanistan, a senior State Department official said of the evacuation operation.