Retired Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, formerly the leader of U.S. Central Command, oversaw America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks plunged the nation into a long-term commitment. But the Afghanistan troop withdrawal has long been a sore subject for House Republicans, who hold a narrow 222-213 majority and are now in a position to hold oversight hearings.
House Republicans are, among other moves, asking the Biden administration for documents about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the final weeks of the U.S. presence in the landlocked Central Asian country, the Taliban secured shocking territorial gains. Biden had to order troops to protect an airport perimeter to evacuate U.S. Embassy staff.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
Washington Examiner: The House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the withdrawal earlier this month — did you happen to pay attention to it?
McKenzie: I did not get an opportunity to examine it closely, no. I didn’t.
Washington Examiner: Two of the six witnesses were service members who were on the ground at Abbey Gate. One of them, Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, lost limbs in the ISIS-K bombing, and both he and another service member at the gate discussed what they described as a lack of accountability. Can you talk about accountability?
McKenzie: Well, I’m not familiar with what they had to say, so there’s not much I can really give you on that. I can tell you that we were focused very closely on what was going on in and around Kabul on that day — and the loss of life, casualties, tragic. Everybody that was associated with that is going to live with that for the rest of their lives, no more than those young men and women who were on the ground there. But I can tell you that we did everything we could within our power to protect them and to carry out the mission that we were given.
Washington Examiner: Sgt. Vargas-Andrews said that he and the service members he was with spotted the ISIS-K bomber ahead of the bombing and notified the people in their command. Are you aware of any service members who thought they identified the bomber ahead of time?
McKenzie: I’m not aware of that. And I’m not aware of any reporting from any source any time that would corroborate that.
Washington Examiner: This was the first of what’s expected to be many hearings on Capitol Hill. Tell me about your expectations from Congress regarding oversight.
McKenzie: Well, I would hope that — first of all, I think it’s a good thing. I think oversight is a good and necessary thing. So I think it’s commendable that we’re doing this. I think that that’s the function that the Congress provides. I would hope that as they execute this oversight, they will do several things. First, they will examine the totality of the war, which lasted over 20 years and involved multiple administrations. They will examine all of the agencies of the executive branch that participated in these operations over this 20-year period. Then, I hope they would also examine their own responsibilities over the 20-year period.
Washington Examiner: How does the Pentagon go about holding itself accountable for a 20-year-long war?
McKenzie: So, I think that the secretary of defense has commissioned at least one study on the endgame of the war. But I think that there will be a deliberate process that looks at the totality of our experience in that war. We do a pretty good job of after-action reports. And so I would assume that’s going on. I’m not in a position now to know what actions are being taken. But again, there’s a lot more here than military equity in this operation. A lot of other parts of the U.S. government and the international community bears responsibility for what happened in Afghanistan. So I don’t think it’s possible to focus on one element of it and draw global conclusions from that. I think you need to look at everybody who was there, all the entities that were there, what they did and didn’t do, and how effective they were.
Washington Examiner: How far back in the war should they go?
McKenzie: I think you should start at the very beginning. I think you should look at decisions that were made when we first went into Afghanistan, should go back to the Bonn conference, should do a variety of things. There are all kinds of things to take a look at there, and there are places to go to do that examination.
Washington Examiner: Can you talk about the terror threat from Afghanistan since the U.S. left?
McKenzie: Well, I think what we’ve seen from the Taliban is a systematic deconstruction of society to reduce it to a medieval or even a premedieval state erosion of human rights — human rights, education, and everything else that goes into a modern functioning society, even if it’s not a society on the Western model. All of that’s being systematically deconstructed by the Taliban. As for what’s going on there in terms of their ability to deal with terrorist platforms, I would look no further than the statement from [CENTCOM’s current commander,] Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla’s testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he warned about the possibility of external attacks by ISIS within the next six months or so. So I would defer to the current commander for an opinion on that.
Washington Examiner: Talk about your opinion on how the U.S. can handle it going forward.
McKenzie: So I said before, it would be very difficult, not impossible, and I think that’s the way to describe it. It will be very difficult to maintain pressure, counterterrorism pressure in Afghanistan over the horizon. Nothing’s happened since then to make me change that opinion.
Washington Examiner: Has the Afghan withdrawal had an effect on current events, like with China and Russia?
McKenzie: I think our actions in August 2021 convinced potential opponents that we were weak and feckless, and they may have drawn certain conclusions from that. I believe that they were wrong in those conclusions, that we would not stand behind our friends, that we couldn’t be depended on in a crisis, and that we would turn and run from places of danger. That has proven not to be the case in Ukraine, and I’m very proud of the actions that the United States and our partners have taken to support Ukraine against Russia’s unjust and aggressive war.
Washington Examiner: How does the U.S. vs. China and Russia feud play out regarding China’s consideration of providing lethal aid to Russia?
McKenzie: I think should China provide lethal aid to Russia, that would be an act of shocking irresponsibility.
Washington Examiner: To go back to the Hill, would you testify in front of Congress? And what do you expect of your role as former CENTCOM commander as it relates to oversight?
McKenzie: I think Congress has a key role to play in oversight. I think we should welcome that oversight. It’s the way our republic is designed. So they have a key role to play. So I welcome the oversight that they’re going to provide here in the investigations they’re going to do. As to my level of participation, I don’t know, and I’m not willing to say now.
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