The State Department ''waited too long'' to order the civilian airlift operation out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers on Tuesday in a classified briefing, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter who spoke to Axios.
He spoke more frankly in private than in his testimony on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in hearings before Congress, where he said the timing of the State Department's order was an ''open question that needs further exploration,'' according to the report.
His comments, according to Axios, underscore the divisions between Antony Blinken's State Department and the Pentagon and will increase questions about rifts behind the scenes. The past two days of hearings with Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Frank McKenzie have exposed the difference in approaches to the Afghanistan evacuation.
Milley ''wasn't blaming anybody per se but was speaking from a purely military perspective. The quicker we moved out non-combatants, the safer they would be,'' another source present in the classified briefing told Axios.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Austin said that the Kabul airlift could have begun in April, but the State Department did not approve the mission until Aug. 14. By then, the Taliban had all but seized control of the Afghan capital.
''I certainly think it could have,'' Austin replied when asked by Democratic Rep. Kaialiʻi (Kai) Kahele of Hawaii whether U.S. citizens should have been flown out sooner. ''Yeah, again we had the elements to begin to begin to operate a bit sooner.
''That's a State Department call and we provide our input, and it's based upon a lot of things,'' Austin said.
''This is not throwing my State Department colleagues under the bus. It's a very dynamic and challenging situation,'' he added.
Austin also said the State Department's concerns ''rightfully were that number one, they were being cautioned by the [Kabul] administration that if they withdrew American citizens and SIV applicants at a pace that was too fast, it would cause a collapse of the government that we were trying to prevent.
''And so, I think that went into the calculus.''
In a statement, the State Department defended its approach.
"In Afghanistan, the Departments of State, Defense, and other interagency partners undertook an expansive military, diplomatic, security, and humanitarian operation, which included one of the largest airlifts in military history. Our ability to quickly build and launch such an operation is a testament to U.S. leadership and know-how," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
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