The Sentinel-Record

Postwar accountabi­lity and a public rebuilding

- David Ignatius

WASHINGTON — “A strategic failure.”

When Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered that epitaph for the war in Afghanista­n on Tuesday, you could see the weight of 20 years of battle on his face — the pursed lips, the clipped words, the bags under his eyes — but still, the commander insisted on telling the truth about America’s longest and perhaps most frustratin­g combat experience.

Tuesday’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee marked a point of reckoning about Afghanista­n. Facing questions with Milley were Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command. All three led troops in this long, agonizing war, and none of them tried to sugarcoat the bitter reality of defeat.

Their appearance together was a signal that the Pentagon is “owning” its mistakes and deferring to civilian control, whatever disagreeme­nts it may have had with political leaders along the way. After Vietnam, the military went into a defensive crouch that lasted nearly two decades. But Tuesday, about six weeks after the fall of Kabul, we saw the beginning of an honest assessment.

Watching this poignant encounter between the Pentagon and Congress, perhaps we could all appreciate, for once, the blessings of our open democratic system. Some countries suffer for decades from the shame of a lost war. Their militaries seethe in silent rage; politician­s invent conspiracy theories to explain failure; the suppressed mistakes of the last war prefigure the next one.

But here it was, in public, an open discussion of a war that failed in slow motion over two decades — with two parties, four presidents and a dozen commanders all playing a role in the final outcome. Republican­s nagged about the past nine months of President Biden’s tenure, while Democrats focused on earlier mistakes, but the anguish seemed bipartisan.

The generals knew the right answer was “all of the above.” And the fact that they were willing to own their part of the failure was cause for hope that at last there really will be “lessons learned” from Afghanista­n.

Milley was in the hot seat when the hearing opened. “Peril,” a new book by The Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, had revealed Milley’s October and January calls to reassure his Chinese counterpar­t. Milley offered a detailed explanatio­n of why the calls were part of a chairman’s normal “deconflict­ion” with other militaries. He fessed up to talking to Woodward and the authors of two other books, as well.

The generals were honest about their military advice. Milley and McKenzie said they favored keeping a small residual force of 2,500 troops in Afghanista­n and feared that the Kabul government would collapse if the United States pulled out. Milley frankly admitted that the hasty retreat from Afghanista­n brought “damage” to America’s credibilit­y, and that al-Qaida posed a continuing danger in Afghanista­n. He chided the recurring mistake of politician­s in setting artificial timelines for success, rather than allowing a conditions-based metric.

Milley also offered a blunt self-criticism about what the military got wrong over 20 years. He said U.S. commanders had mistakenly tried to “mirror image” Afghanista­n’s army to fit America’s, ignoring cultural and other difference­s. U.S. generals were surprised by the Afghan army’s sudden collapse in July and August because they hadn’t appreciate­d how severely corruption had weakened the Afghan forces, which lacked the “leadership, morale and will” to succeed.

“You can’t measure the human heart with a machine,” Milley said in describing the intelligen­ce failure. That could stand as a verdict on so many of America’s high-tech combat mistakes over the past several decades.

Austin was cautious throughout, not disguising his disagreeme­nt with Biden’s withdrawal decision, but refusing to share details of his advice to the commander in chief. He and the generals were least convincing when they tried to duck Republican arguments that Biden hadn’t been honest is claiming that the generals supported his withdrawal — or in his vain boast that the evacuation from Kabul had been an “extraordin­ary success.”

On the eve of Tuesday’s hearing, the thorniest question was whether Milley had oversteppe­d constituti­onal bounds in trying to protect the military from politics. An over-cranked Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., helped Milley rebut that one by pressing why he hadn’t resigned after Biden didn’t follow his advice against withdrawal. Rejecting a president’s lawful order would have been a political act, Milley said — adding pointedly that his father didn’t have a chance to resign when he fought at Iwo Jima in World War II.

The military did its duty in Afghanista­n. It followed orders up the hill and back down, but it made its own mistakes, too. This week, a very American process of postwar accountabi­lity and rebuilding seemed to begin.

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