Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping

Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping
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It's Tuesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Top Pentagon officials testified in front of lawmakers on Tuesday about the risks emanating from Afghanistan weeks after the Taliban took control of the country. 

Meanwhile, private companies are stepping up to aid in relocation efforts for vulnerable Afghans, part of the 125,000 that were evacuated amid the U.S. exit from the country in August.

And the Biden administration is taking a more forceful position on standing up for Taiwan.

I’m Laura Kelly, covering foreign policy for The Hill and filling in for our Pentagon reporter, Ellen Mitchell. Write to Ellen with tips: emitchell@thehill.com, or me: lkelly@thehill.com. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for all the breaking news and latest updates: @EllenEMitchell & @HelloLauraKelly.

Let’s get to it.

 

Lawmakers press top Pentagon officials on Afghanistan threats 

Top Pentagon officials testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday on the current security situation in Central and South Asia following the chaotic departure of American forces from Afghanistan after two decades of war. 

The officials, including Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl and Lt. Gen. James Mingus, director for Operations, J3 Joint Staff, largely stuck to the Biden administration’s arguments that the quick fall of the Western-backed Afghan government in Kabul was unexpected. 

They also reiterated their belief that terrorist groups like ISIS-K and Al Qaeda have the intent to carry out terrorist attacks outside of Afghanistan, particularly against the United States, but face a timeline of between six and 36 months to build up that capacity. 

“As you said in your opening senator, we have to remain vigilant  against that possibility,” Kahl said in response to a question from the chair of the committee, Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Defense & National Security — Quick vote on defense bill blocked again Rubio blocks quick votes on stalemated defense bill Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE (D-R.I.).

Kahl further said that the Pentagon has “some very specific ideas” on what the administration is calling “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities, keeping an eye on terrorist threats in Afghanistan from outside the country, but said such ideas had to be discussed in the closed session.

“It’s very sensitive.”

Mingus reiterated that while over-the-horizon activities are more difficult, he said the military is primed to take action. 

“It is harder, but we believe we have the assets in place right now, if necessary, to disrupt and, or degrade the terrorist networks in Afghanistan,” he said.



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OFFICIALS ON DEFENSE

The top Defense officials further defended their handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, sticking closely to arguments by the Biden administration that they expected the Western-backed Afghan government in Kabul to hold firm for at least a few months with the conclusion of an American presence in the country. 

“The goal during the retrograde was to assist the Afghan government, not undermine them,” said Colin Kahl, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, under questioning over why the U.S. did not initiate evacuations earlier. 

“There was concern that if you accelerated evacuations, to include a large number of Afghans that it would create a self-fulfilling prophecy of accelerating the collapse of the Afghan government. That is also something that [Afghan] President Ghani raised as a chief concern.”

Ghani fled Afghanistan on Aug. 15, hours after reassuring Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden administration prepared to use 'other tools' on Iran amid troubled nuclear talks US intelligence says Russia planning Ukraine offensive involving 175K troops: reports MORE in a phone call that he would fight to the death. His flight from the country had a domino effect on the Afghan government and security forces, which melted away in the face of a lightning offensive by the Taliban, which retook Kabul that same day. 

At least 13 U.S. service members and hundreds of Afghans were later killed in a terrorist bombing claimed by ISIS-K outside Kabul’s airport. 

While the Biden administration managed to evacuate 125,000 people from Afghanistan, the majority of those who hold SIV status were left behind, as well as American citizens, Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) and Afghans vulnerable from retribution attacks by the Taliban. 

Evacuation efforts are ongoing, with some people able to leave on commercial flights or through clandestine operations and crossing land borders. 

Kahl on Tuesday said that the State Department is in contact with 196 American citizens who have plans to depart and that 243 American citizens have been contacted but are not ready to leave. 

Since Sept. 1, the day after U.S. forces completely left the country, the State Department has documented 240 Americans who have left the country and 157 LPRs. Approximately 314 Americans and 266 LPRs exited the country without help from the U.S. government since Sept. 1.

Lawmakers search for answers on Afghanistan

Taliban Badri fighters stand guard as Afghans wait at the main entrance gate of Kabul airport

 

Testimony from the Pentagon officials is part of an ongoing effort by lawmakers to understand the quick collapse of the political and security infrastructure in Afghanistan that the U.S. had invested two decades in building. 

“What I want to know – what the American people want to know, and what our troops who served and sacrificed in Afghanistan absolutely deserve to know – is what did President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE’s most senior advisors do during those four months?” Sen. Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — Senate looks to break defense bill stalemate Senate GOP moving toward deal to break defense bill stalemate Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said during his opening statement.

Sen. Reed put his support behind a formal, independent study of the Afghan war, with such an effort to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act. 

“It is vitally important for us to reflect upon and study the entirety of the 20-year mission in Afghanistan,” he said.


Executives donating 20,000 flights to Afghan evacuees 

Major airlines and travel industry executives will be donating 20,000 flights to get Afghan refugees to their final destinations in the U.S., organizers of the effort announced Tuesday.

United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, the Boeing Company, Frontier Airlines, Air Canada and the Tripadvisor Foundation will contribute over 20,000 airline tickets for evacuees, organizers Welcome.US and Miles4Migrants said in a statement.

The contributions match an additional 20,000 flights that have already been "donated by the American people" since August through frequent flyer miles and credit card points.

Helping out: Welcome.US is a nonpartisan effort launched last month designed to be a “single point of entry” for Americans who want to help Afghan refugees.   

Read the full story here.

US backs Taiwan's participation in UN

The United States on Tuesday backed Taiwan’s inclusion in the United Nations system, a move that is likely to rankle China, which considers the island under the authority of Beijing.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken called “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in the UN system” a “pragmatic” issue and not a political one. 

“Taiwan’s exclusion undermines the important work of the UN and its related bodies, all of which stand to benefit greatly from its contributions,” Blinken said.  

BEIJING BALKS: China has long opposed Taiwan’s participation among U.N. bodies and pushes back against any international move that appears to recognize the island as separate from Beijing.

“The Taiwan authorities' attempt to expand the so-called ‘international’ space by brownnosing foreign forces is in essence trying to expand the room for ‘Taiwan independence’ and separatism and will only prove a failure,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin earlier told reporters, referring to meetings between U.S. and Taiwanese officials. 

Read more here here.



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WHAT WE’RE READING

 

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. We'll see you Wednesday.

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