September 30, 2021

One Senator’s Plan to Cut Through the Politics and Get Answers on Afghanistan

Sen. Tammy Duckworth says a nonpartisan commission could compile lessons without the “political theater.”

Source: Defense One


One senator is introducing a bill that would establish a nonpartisan commission to study the war in Afghanistan to try to cut through the political drama that has surrounded lawmakers’ consideration of the conflict this week. 

Top generals testified before Congress this week about the withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war. Many Republicans sought to pin the blame for the chaotic withdrawal on President Joe Biden, while Democrats overwhelmingly defended the president and pointed fingers at the Doha Agreement negotiated by President Donald Trump. At times, the hearings devolved into lawmakers yelling over each other. 

A nonpartisan commission is one way to rise above that fray, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told Defense One. Duckworth, an Army veteran, serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which hosted both open and classified sessions on Tuesday with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, and U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie. 

The open hearing was filled with senators grilling Milley about his interviews with political book authors and repeatedly pointing out that Republicans were also to blame for some bad decision making on Afghanistan. But Duckworth said the tone changed behind closed doors. 

“I will tell you that the classified version in the [sensitive compartmented information facility] was far more productive than the political theater that you saw in the open session,” she said. “I think by making this nonpartisan...we can really work towards giving it the seriousness and the due diligence that it deserves. The American people deserve a real clear-eyed look at the mistakes that were made by four administrations.”

Duckworth is proposing an independent, nonpartisan Afghanistan War Study Commission to investigate every aspect of the war, from combat operations to intelligence collection to diplomacy between Sept. 11, 2001, and Aug, 30, 2021, the day the final plane departed Kabul. The commission’s goal will be to produce an unclassified report of lessons learned and recommendations to ensure similar mistakes aren’t made in future conflicts, though Duckworth acknowledged it will likely be a “multi-year process” to get full answers. 

The senator plans to introduce the language as an amendment to the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act when it is being considered on the Senate floor. 

Having a nonpartisan commission investigate the conflict behind closed doors could allow for study without some of the most contentious public exchanges that happened at the House Armed Services Committee hearing with Austin, Milley and McKenzie on Wednesday. Multiple Republicans called on Milley to resign. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., accused the chairman of spending more time talking to political journalists than he did planning for Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban. 

One of the most heated exchanges was over whether Biden had lied about the advice he received from military leaders to keep a small number of troops in Afghanistan. ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked Biden in an August interview if military advisors had asked to keep 2,500 troops in the country, and Biden replied, “No, they didn’t. It was split. That wasn’t true.” McKenzie and Milley, however, both told Congress on Tuesday that their view was that 2,500 troops should have stayed in the country. 

Many Republicans, including Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., jumped on this as evidence that Biden was lying, but Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the committee, defended the president, arguing that Biden was saying in the interview that only 2,500 troops would not be able to maintain stability. Smith urged others to go read the interview transcript themselves and “not take what is being said here as accurate,” charging Bacon with interpreting Biden’s words “to make sure we could successfully have a partisan attack on him.” 

“For 20 years, we’ve had these conversations over and over again,” Smith said. “What President Biden said is ‘We’re done.’ We’re not going to have these hearings anymore. We’re not going to have the funerals anymore. We’re not going to lose the service members fighting a war [in which] it is clear we can not be successful.” 

During his defense of the president, Smith was repeatedly talked over by Republicans, one of whom shouted, “They’re bringing the war here. It’s not over, it’s coming to America. The funerals are here, Mr. Chairman.” 

Duckworth has ideas for how to avoid this kind of politically-driven chaos in the commission, including building a nonpartisan panel, not a bipartisan one. 

“I was on a bipartisan commission, the Benghazi committee, and that was bipartisan, but it was very political, so bipartisan doesn’t keep something from being political,” she said. 

To do that, it’s critical for commission members to not have held decision-making roles during the past 20-years of the war. That means defense secretaries of the past 20 years, or member of Congress who have been serving on the relevant committees during the war, would not be eligible to be on the panel. 

“Don’t, for example, ask former Secretary of Defense [Jim] Mattis to lead this, but maybe we ask former Secretary of Defense [William] Cohen to lead it, because even though he is well-qualified, he wasn’t in a decision-making position over those 20 years,” she said. “Once you do that, you take the partisanship out of it and you can really dig into what lessons need to be learned.” 

By:  Jacqueline Feldscher