WASHINGTON ― U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to testify in Congress next week on the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan ― but the briefing is set to happen out of public view.
Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, will address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee in a top secret Senate facility on Tuesday, Jan. 11, the committee announced Tuesday.
The appearance will come as defense officials acknowledge small gains made by al-Qaida, the extremist group that used Afghanistan as a staging base to attack the United States 20 years ago. Austin has asserted the U.S. military is able to contain threats emanating from Afghanistan using surveillance and strike aircraft based elsewhere.
Still, the Biden administration has faced tough bipartisan criticism and questioning over the chaotic end to America’s longest-running war. Even lawmakers sympathetic to President Joe Biden’s decision to end the 20-year war have expressed concern over the hasty withdrawal, in which 13 American service members were killed.
Austin did testify alongside Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 28. He acknowledged then the Pentagon didn’t foresee the swift collapse of the Afghan military and government.
“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, we didn’t grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by [Afghan] President Ghani of his commanders, we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders,” Austin said.
When Austin declined to appear with Blinken at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Sept. 14 hearing, the panel’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., suggested he would compel Austin to testify or oppose Pentagon nominees over the no-show. Menendez has called the execution of the U.S. withdrawal “fatally flawed” and questioned how U.S. intelligence collection and counterterrorism operations there will continue.
“A full accounting of the U.S. response to this crisis is not complete without the Pentagon — especially when it comes to understanding the complete collapse of the U.S. trained and funded Afghan military,” Menendez said at the time.
The Pentagon said then that Austin’s “conflicting commitments” prevented him from testifying.
Though Austin tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, the Jan. 11 hearing date falls outside of Austin’s planned quarantine period, which ends after Thursday. Austin’s symptoms are mild, and he has been participating in virtual meetings while working from home, a spokesman said Tuesday.
With reporting by the Associated Press.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.