US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress on Tuesday that the Afghan Army's collapse caught the Pentagon “by surprise”, as military leaders appeared before a Senate hearing about how and why America lost its longest war.
It was their first public congressional testimony since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in mid-August.
“The fact that the Afghan Army we and our partners trained simply melted away – in many cases without firing a shot – took us all by surprise,” Mr Austin told the Senate armed services committee.
“It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”
Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen Frank McKenzie of US Central Command also acknowledged being caught off-guard by the speed of the Taliban takeover and collapse of the US-backed government in Kabul.
Gen Milley told Congress on Tuesday that the order initially stipulated a complete withdrawal of US troops by January 15, only five days before President Joe Biden's inauguration.
The generals said they had assessed under both the Biden administration and that of his predecessor Donald Trump that a full withdrawal would spark a collapse of the Afghan government.
“My analysis was that an accelerated withdrawal without meeting specific and necessary conditions risks losing the substantial gains made in Afghanistan, damaging US worldwide credibility and could precipitate a general collapse of the [Afghan National Security Forces] and the Afghan government, resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war,” Gen Milley said.
“That was a year ago. My assessment remained consistent throughout.”
Mr Austin, Gen Milley and many senators seemed full of questions about what went wrong, citing failures to appreciate the impact of corruption and damaged morale in the ranks of the Afghan Army.
However, Mr Austin praised US personnel who helped airlift 124,000 people out of the country.
But Milley acknowledged that while the evacuation effort was a logistical accomplishment, the withdrawal was a “strategic defeat” that left the Taliban back in power.
He warned the Taliban “remains a terrorist organisation” which has not broken ties with Al Qaeda.
A reconstituted Al Qaeda in Afghanistan with aspirations to attack the United States was “a very real possibility” – perhaps in as little as a year, he said.
Meanwhile, Mr Austin defended plans to address future counterterrorism threats from overseas, after a botched drone strike killed 10 Afghan civilians in Kabul last month.
“Over-the-horizon operations are difficult but absolutely possible. And the intelligence that supports them comes from a variety of sources, not just US boots on the ground,” Mr Austin said.
'Americans want more diplomacy, fewer troops abroad'
In related news, a survey reviewed by Reuters on Tuesday found that most Americans want more US diplomatic engagement and many want fewer US troops stationed abroad
The survey, designed by the non-profit, non-partisan Eurasia Group Foundation and conducted between August 27 and September 1, found that just over 58 per cent believe the US should engage more in negotiations on issues such as climate change, human rights and migration.
Of the 2,168 surveyed, just over 42 per cent believe the US should cut the number of troops in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, reduce its commitments to defend countries there and gradually shift regional security responsibility to allies.
The poll found just over 32 per cent believed the US should either maintain or boost its troops abroad, while more than 25 per cent had no opinion.
Eurasia Group Foundation senior fellow Mark Hannah said the number of Americans who believe US foreign policy should be more concerned about building democracy at home than abroad increased substantially over the last two years.
“We collected our data at a time period when the US was evacuating from Afghanistan and the failures of nation-building and democracy-promotion through military means were spectacular and quite stark,” he added. “That might explain this sharp rise and a desire to do democracy promotion at home this year.”
The last US soldier left Afghanistan on August 30, ending the nearly 20-year US military involvement.