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Retired commander who oversaw Afghanistan withdrawal says he alone bears responsibility for airport attack

He later placed some blame on the State Department because he said the order U.S. diplomats had to issue for the evacuation from Afghanistan came too late.
Kenneth McKenzie during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in 2021. Stefani Reynolds / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The former U.S. commander who oversaw the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan said Tuesday that he alone bears responsibility for the American soldiers killed during the attack at Kabul's airport.

"I was the overall commander, and I and I alone bear full military responsibility for what happened at Abbey Gate," retired Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who led U.S. Central Command from 2019 to 2022, said at a congressional hearing.

Gold Star families who lost their loved ones during the Abbey Gate attack attended the hearing Tuesday by the GOP-led House Foreign Affairs Committee that focused on an assessment of the Biden administration’s withdrawal. The attack by the Islamic State terrorist group outside the airport at Abbey Gate killed 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghan civilians on Aug. 26, 2021. The troops were helping people evacuate from the country at the time.

The hearing also featured testimony from retired Army Gen. Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lawmakers hoped the two retired generals could be more candid and share more information now that they're no longer in uniform.

"We owe them answers," Milley said about the Gold Star families in his opening statement, promising to help them understand what happened. "There's nothing that I can say or do that's going to fill that gaping hole in your heart. But as I've told you before, I'm committed. I will honor that commitment to get you the answers to get you to the truth."

Milley said it would take a "considerable length of time" to get those answers, especially because, he said, much of the record is classified.

"It was a tragic event, one of many that have occurred over our 20-year engagement in Afghanistan," McKenzie said about the Abbey Gate attack. "It remains my opinion that if there was culpability in this attack, it lies in policy decisions that created the environment of August 2021 in Kabul. ... The simple fact is this: On the battlefield, even with good planning, tremendous execution by bright people on the ground, the enemy sometimes has success."

But later McKenzie and Milley both placed some of the blame on the State Department, saying the order for the evacuation from Afghanistan came too late. McKenzie said it was up to the State Department — not the Defense Department — to authorize that order, which finally came on Aug. 14, 2021.

"I believe that the events of mid- and late August 2021 were the direct result of delaying the initiation of the [evacuation] for several months," said McKenzie, who said the Pentagon had already begun positioning U.S. forces in the region as early as July 9, 2021. "But we could do nothing, nothing to commence the operation, the evacuation," until it was declared by the State Department, he added.

"I believe the call to execute the [evacuation] came too late," Milley said.

Both McKenzie and Milley said that their previous testimony about the withdrawal still stands — that the chaos didn't happen overnight and that multiple factors contributed to the collapse of the Afghan government after the U.S. left the country. Milley, however, said he's still not sure how many Americans were left behind in Afghanistan, because, he said, "the starting number was never clear." At the same time, he said, it wasn't realistic or feasible to track down the exact number.

McKenzie and Milley had testified before Congress about the chaotic withdrawal in 2021 when they still held their leadership roles. They revealed then that they had recommended to President Joe Biden that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan even after the Aug. 31, 2021, withdrawal deadline.

Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, reiterated Tuesday his criticism of the Biden administration's execution of the military pullout.

"I believe the accountability ensures mistakes of the past are not repeated. But from where I sit, the president and this administration refused to acknowledge their failures," McCaul said. "I launched this investigation to make sure that the mistakes made in Afghanistan never, ever happen again."

McCaul has been seeking certain documents from that period, and afterward, that could shed light on intelligence and the communication among U.S. officials in the run-up to the withdrawal.

Ranking member Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said that Biden's effort to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan was the right decision and acknowledged that while it was in the best interest of the U.S., "a number of contributing factors complicated the withdrawal." He placed some of the blame for the attack on former President Donald Trump, who Meeks said "lacked a comprehensive plan for withdrawing from Afghanistan."

Earlier this month, McCaul postponed a planned markup to hold Secretary of State Antony Blinken in contempt of Congress for failing to turn over relevant documents. The chairman said Blinken agreed to provide the records.

"I had a good conversation with the secretary last night and he agreed to produce the documents," McCaul said. "In the spirit of good faith negotiations, I’ve postponed the markup — with the understanding that these documents will be produced. I’ve been told we will start to get them this morning. Our teams are working to facilitate that. These documents will provide crucial information for our investigation. I take the secretary at his word that we will get all these documents. But if the situation changes, I will have to revisit all our options to ensuring they are produced.” 

The documents were from internal interviews the State Department conducted for its after-action review of the Afghanistan withdrawal. McCaul subpoenaed them in July 2023 after first requesting them in January 2023.

McCaul had threatened to hold Blinken in contempt over the State Department's failure to share a 2021 diplomatic cable in which 23 U.S. diplomats warned of Kabul's potential collapse post-withdrawal. Ultimately, the State Department allowed McCaul to view the dissent cable and its response.

In April 2023, the White House released a report on the withdrawal that largely blamed the Trump administration for what unfolded. Trump, meanwhile, often chastises Biden for his handling of the withdrawal.