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Senate panel examines what went wrong in Afghanistan

By Catherine Buchaniec, Medill News Service
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Senate panel examines what went wrong in Afghanistan
Refugees are evacuated from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 26. File Photo by Hassan Majeed/UPI | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- Lawmakers looked to the past for answers during a Wednesday hearing into policy decisions made across four presidential administrations that may have contributed to the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August.

But as they tried to hone in on which choices over a nearly 20-year period ended up being mistakes, experts disagreed on where exactly the United States erred, and instead pointed toward the larger consequences of modern U.S. military intervention abroad.

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"You're not going to get total victory in an Afghan context or anywhere else," said Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq. "We don't do total war; we don't get total victories."

Wednesday's inquiry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was the latest in a series of hearings on Capitol Hill that attempt to understand the circumstances that led to the disastrous end to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

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Crocker was joined by Laurel Miller, director of the International Crisis Group's Asia Program. Throughout the hearing, Miller and Crocker cautioned lawmakers on the long-term impact of pursuing military action, especially in Afghanistan.

"The consequences of a military intervention are not just the third and fourth order, they were the 30th and 40th," Crocker told lawmakers.

While the experts agreed on the importance of planning for long-term impacts, Miller took a more critical view of policy decisions made during earlier administrations, highlighting the pitfalls of regime change in particular.

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Invoking the doctrine of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Miller told lawmakers that when the United States removed the Taliban from power, they operated under the assumption that the power vacuum would sort itself out without considerable U.S. effort.

"In the words of Colin Powell: 'You break it, you own it,' and so if you're going to engage in regime change, you better have strategic patience," Miller said.

Although Miller's remarks focused on the entirety of the war, Crocker primarily reflected on recent policy decisions. Notably, he pointed to the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and President Joe Biden's decision to follow through as the main pitfall in America's Afghanistan policy.

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When senators questioned Crocker on policy mishaps during the early stages of the conflict, he said that once the Taliban refused to give up al-Qaida leadership, including Osama bin Laden, the United States had no choice but to execute the policy exactly as it occurred.

Crocker's evaluation prompted swift pushback from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

"I remember being a first-term, 33-year-old member of Congress and going to Iraq for my first time, meeting you," Murphy said. "That makes it pretty shocking to listen to what seems to be from you a complete lack of critical assessments of our 20-year adventure in Afghanistan."

Under questioning from lawmakers from both parties, Crocker indicated that he did not support the quick withdrawal from the country. But Murphy pressed the former ambassador on how long the United States should have stayed and under what conditions.

"If the timeline is impossible, what are the benchmarks?" Murphy asked. "Why would we think that those benchmarks could be achieved in another five years or 10 years?"

Crocker responded by underscoring the importance of following through on principles that hold the Taliban to account instead of an outright victory.

Scenes from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley deliver remarks about the end of the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., on September 1. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

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