Top Democratic senator threatens Pentagon chief with subpoena over Afghanistan

Legal threat against Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin comes after he refused to testify on Afghanistan before Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Chairman Bob Menendez questions Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday. Getty Images
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A top Democratic senator on Tuesday threatened to subpoena Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin after he refused to testify on the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Mr Austin had been invited to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but declined the invitation in a rare Washington snub.

“I’m very disappointed that Secretary Austin declined our request to testify today,” said committee chairman Bob Menendez.

“A full accounting of the US response to this crisis isn’t complete without the Pentagon, especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the US-trained and funded Afghan military.”

Mr Menendez, threatening a member of his own Democratic administration, said he expected Mr Austin "to avail himself to the committee in the near future".

"If he does not, I may consider the use of committee subpoena power to compel him and others over the course of these last 20 years to testify.”

The committee chairman also said Mr Austin’s refusal to testify would “affect my personal judgement” of Defence Department nominees awaiting Senate confirmation, a significant threat in an evenly split, hyper-partisan chamber that gives President Joe Biden little flexibility to lose votes from his own party.

"The secretary thanks Chairman Menendez for his interest in having him appear today and regrets that conflicting commitments made that appearance impracticable," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told The National.

"He greatly respects the oversight role of Congress and he looks forward to testifying at the end of this month before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees."

Mr Menendez struck a more critical note on the president’s Afghanistan withdrawal than his fellow Democrats in the House of Representatives, who largely blamed former president Donald Trump for the debacle while defending the Biden administration when Mr Blinken testified in the lower chamber on Monday.

“While communication from the administration has been frequent throughout this crisis, information from [the State Department], the Pentagon and the White House has often been vague or contradictory,” Mr Menendez said.

He called on the Biden administration and the UN to maintain existing sanctions on the Taliban while re-imposing sanctions that the Trump administration waived under the negotiations leading up to the US withdrawal.

“And the US should consider new measures to impose higher costs on the group and its leaders while ensuring that life-saving humanitarian aid is able to assist those most vulnerable to hunger, disease and disaster,” he said.

Mr Blinken announced an additional $64 million in new humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan in a statement released during his testimony before the House on Monday.

But James Risch, the top Republican on the committee, sharply criticised Mr Blinken for announcing the new assistance.

“Your notification that you intend to restart foreign assistance is deeply, deeply concerning,” said Mr Risch.

He also described the Afghanistan withdrawal as “an interagency failure” and told Mr Blinken that “the fact that you’re the only one stepping up is disheartening".

Mr Risch echoed Mr Menendez’s ire over Mr Austin's refusal to testify, noting that the defence secretary’s testimony would be key to getting to the bottom of the Biden administration’s glacial pace in processing Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans who assisted the US military and their families.

“One of the biggest problems to help processing [Special Immigrant Visas] was the enormous failure of the Department of Defence to provide the records needed to validate the Afghans who bravely helped our forces,” said Mr Risch.

“The fact that [the Defence Department] didn’t keep curated records is irresponsible and a slap in the face to those who fought alongside of us. Obviously, I want to talk to Secretary Austin about this.”

Mr Risch said that the Biden administration flew out only 705 of the roughly 20,000 principle Special Immigrant Visa holders after the fall of Kabul.

He noted that the Foreign Relations Committee had repeatedly reached out to the State Department starting in April to ask what additional authorities the Biden administration needed from Congress to expedite visa processing.

“For months, we received contradictory responses or no response at all,” he said.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Mr Risch’s counterpart in the House announced that he had hired an investigator to focus exclusively on the Biden administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal.

Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced that he had hired Ryan Browne – a former CNN reporter and Afghanistan specialist – to pursue the Republican investigation.

Updated: September 14, 2021, 5:13 PM