Senators pressed the three men on why the Pentagon failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and Afghan military, why the United States did not start evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans sooner, and what the Pentagon was doing now to help evacuate the remaining Americans and Afghans who want to leave the country.

Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general who served in Afghanistan, conceded that the collapse of the Afghan Army in the final weeks of the war — in many cases without the Taliban firing a shot — surprised top commanders.

“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we didn’t grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders,” Mr. Austin said, referring to Ashraf Ghani, the former president of Afghanistan who fled the country as the Taliban took control.

“We failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight,” Mr. Austin said.

In his opening remarks and throughout the hearing, Mr. Austin defended the Biden administration’s decisions to close the sprawling Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, in early July, and to target resources toward defending Kabul’s international airport as the main gateway in and out of the country. He acknowledged that the Pentagon badly misjudged the Afghan military’s will to fight.

“Retaining Bagram would have required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way, just to operate and defend it,” Mr. Austin said. “And it would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned — and that was to protect and defend the embassy, which was some 30 miles away.”

Republicans said the troop withdrawal would allow Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to rebuild and use Afghanistan as a launching pad for future attacks against Americans and the U.S. homeland.

General McKenzie expressed reservations about whether the United States could block the terrorist groups from developing that kind of safe haven now that American troops had left the country.

“That’s yet to be seen,” General McKenzie said in response to a question. “We could get to that point, but I do not yet have that level of confidence.”

Mr. Biden has vowed to prevent Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from rebuilding to the point where they could attack Americans or the United States.

But General McKenzie’s response underscored how difficult that task will be and was somewhat more pessimistic than the assessments of other top Pentagon officials at the hearing.

General Milley said that a “reconstituted Al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility.” He added: “And those conditions, to include activity in ungoverned spaces, could present themselves in the next 12 to 36 months.”

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