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House Hearing Will Pick Up Where Senate Panel Left Off On Afghan Withdrawal

NOEL KING, HOST:

With us now is Republican Congressman Mike Waltz of Florida. He's a member of the House Armed Services Committee, and so he will be questioning top military officials today. He's an Army veteran and a colonel in the National Guard. He served in the U.S. military in Afghanistan and later ran a defense contracting firm that worked in Afghanistan as well. Good morning to you, sir.

MIKE WALTZ: Hey. Good morning.

KING: What else do you want to know today from Defense Secretary Austin, General Milley and General McKenzie that you didn't hear yesterday?

WALTZ: Well, there's a number of things. I think, in general, you know, we're seeing such a gulf between what the generals recommended and where they think we are now and where the White House is and where the president is. I mean, we heard yesterday that the generals indeed recommended that we leave a stay-behind force and that we keep Bagram Air Base open. President Biden has said that that was not the case. President Biden said that we have no issue with our allies. We heard from the generals and from General Milley that actually our credibility is severely damaged. We've heard President Biden say the war is over. But the generals say that al-Qaida is actually still at war with us. We heard him say that we had to get out to deal with China, yet we're hearing the generals say that, actually, having Bagram Air Base just a few hundred miles from the Chinese border would have been, strategically, incredibly important. And then, finally, that we're hearing him say that we have - this was, you know, at the end of the day, a huge success and a strategic and historic airlift, yet I could tell you the Americans that are still there that I'm still in touch with - they don't think this was a success.

So I just, at a fundamental level, want to get to the bottom of this massive and strategic disconnect between what the generals were recommending and what - and the decisions that President Biden is making because it has huge implications even beyond Afghanistan to China, Iran and around the world.

KING: Let's talk about a couple of things you mentioned there.

WALTZ: Sure.

KING: Defense Secretary Austin was asked about the decision in July to pull out of Bagram Air Base, which was the U.S. military's central hub in Afghanistan. Here's what he said during the hearing yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: Retaining Bagram would have required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm's way just to operate and defend it. And it would have contributed little to the mission that we'd been assigned, and that was to protect and defend the embassy, which was some 30 miles away.

KING: He's saying we would have put the lives of 5,000 U.S. troops at risk, in harm's way, if the U.S. had stayed at Bagram. What do you think about that? Do you think that risk is worth it?

WALTZ: I think that cuts a little bit off to me, to be candid, because what he was talking about there was to just narrowly do the evacuation and sending troops back in to do the evacuation. But, you know, at the end of the day, what I'm talking about is the broader strategy. And yes, we may have had to end up having 5,000 instead of 2,500 that was left there at the end of the Bush - excuse me - the Trump administration. But I think we have to think about that as an insurance premium. Are we - were we willing to continue to pay that to prevent the catastrophic attack?

And what is clear from the intelligence community and now from the generals is that al-Qaida fully intends to attack us again. They fully intend and are reconstituting. And I don't want to wait for another Pulse nightclub or San Bernardino or, God forbid, another 9/11. We saw this happen when we completely pulled out of Iraq. It led to the rise of the ISIS caliphate, and we had to go back in to clean up that absolute mess after attacks across Western Europe and here in the United States. I don't think it's responsible to wait for that to happen again. And if we have to have a forward presence, then that's exactly what we should do and what we're doing all over the world.

KING: Tell me what you mean by forward presence, though. What does that - does that mean deploying troops to Afghanistan again? In your view, what needs to happen here?

WALTZ: Yeah, and - well, what we should have kept was a small presence forward that, one, did counterterrorism but, two, provided that critical support to the Afghan military - the logistics, the maintenance, the intelligence and some limited air support. But now that that's all gone, the question I have for the administration is how bad are they going to let that threat reporting get on the homeland before they take action?

KING: Let me ask you lastly - General Milley and Defense Secretary Austin admitted that the Pentagon was surprised by the fast collapse of the Afghan government. After so many years in Afghanistan, what do you think is behind this disconnect between the Pentagon's assessment versus what really happened?

WALTZ: You know, well, one, I'm surprised they were surprised because I wasn't. And a lot of veterans I know that served there weren't. What we ended up doing in just a few months was pulling away the Afghan army's - our air support, their air support, their maintenance support, their logistics support, their intelligence support, you know, all at once and on top of a narrative that America had abandoned you and the Taliban would win eventually; we're going to go after your families if you don't start surrendering. So I think - but, you know, I think at the end of the day, we're going to find that one of the reasons we were so blind on to the effect that was going to have is we pulled our advisers a few years ago. We really didn't have anybody out there, you know, with those Afghan commanders. And, you know, you can count tanks and ships and planes, but understanding what's going on with their morale and their will means you have to have a presence. And I think for that reason, the Pentagon was caught blindsided.

KING: Congressman Mike Waltz joining us via Skype. Thank you, congressman, for taking the time.

WALTZ: Absolutely. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.