U.S. Central Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie dismissed an offer from the Taliban to allow the U.S. to control all of Kabul during the Afghanistan evacuation, a decision that led to the ISIS-K bombing in late August where 13 U.S. service members were killed, Rep. Michael Gallagher, R-Wis., told the Washington Examiner.
"You could've taken the offer to the president and asked for more troops to secure Kabul," Gallagher told the news outlet after he questioned McKenzie Wednesday on the Afghanistan withdrawal before the House Armed Services Committee. "We would've avoided being entirely dependent upon the Taliban and the Haqqani network for security around the airport, which I believe is the original sin which led to the suicide bombing."
McKenzie told Gallagher his orders were merely to conduct a "noncombatant evacuation operation" after the "withdrawal operation" was "completed," so he dismissed any offer from the Taliban to secure the city of Kabul.
"I view that decision to ignore the Taliban's offer to let us secure all of Kabul instead of just HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport] as a critical decision," Gallagher told the Examiner. "And the fact that McKenzie dismissed it as nonserious, and that he does not know whether it got reported up the chain to the president seems significant to me."
McKenzie told Gallagher he met with the Taliban's Mullah Abdul Ghani Akhund Baradar on Aug. 15 "to pass a message to him that we were withdrawing and if they attempted to disrupt that withdrawal, we would punish them severely for that."
"As part of that conversation, he said, 'Why don't you just take security for all of Kabul?'" McKenzie acknowledged to Gallagher. "That was not why I was there. That was not my instruction. And we did not have the resources to undertake that mission."
McKenzie said the offer was made "in the presence to the president's special representative to Afghanistan," Zalmay Khalilzad.
Gallagher directly pressed McKenzie on "who made the decision to turn down the Taliban" offer for the U.S. to secure all of Kabul.
"I did not consider that to be a formal offer, and it was not the reason why I was there, so I did not pursue it," McKenzie responded. "So, if somebody had actually made a decision, that would have been me."
Also in the testimony, McKenzie admitted the Taliban's Badri 313 was a part of the enemy team providing security for the Kabul airport, which Gallagher said "specializes in suicide bombing attacks."
"I don't have proof that they opened the floodgates and allowed an ISIS-K suicide bomber, but I think at a minimum it merits further scrutiny because this is a group that has a history with suicide bombings in charge of security at the moment a suicide bombing attack kills 13 Americans," Gallagher told the Examiner. "At a minimum, I think it proves the folly of relying upon the Taliban as our security partner."
McKenzie did admit to Gallagher in the testimony, "the Taliban and al-Qaida have a very close relationship, and I do not expect the Taliban to seriously interfere with their basing or repositioning in Afghanistan."
Gallagher also said there's nothing in the recent history of Afghanistan that suggests the Taliban is conflicted about its relationship with al-Qaida, adding "the fact that Haqqani is part of the government makes me further concerned."
"I think we're putting a lot of our future strategy where it rests on a certain set of assumptions around the Taliban acting as rational actors trying to maximize utility and gains from the international community, which I think is flawed, and also that over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations can work effectively when your only partner on the ground is the Taliban, whose closest partner on the ground is al-Qaida," Gallagher told the Examiner.
"I think those two things are huge problems for our strategy going forward."
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