President Joe Biden’s administration has said one reason for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan was the need to shift its focus to the Pacific. Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono wants to make sure that happens.

Hirono grilled military leaders Tuesday about what the Defense Department will do with money and troops freed up by the end of America’s longest war, asking specifically about a $1.9 billion missile defense radar that has been planned for Hawaii.

“The president has touted the Afghanistan pullout as necessary to free up time and money to deal with near peer competitors like Russia and China,” Hirono told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “But that stated rationale is somewhat I think at odds with the administration’s budget.”

US Marines storm Pyramid Rock Beach Marine Corps Base Hawaii after landing on beach via Amphibious Assault Vehicles in RIMPAC exercises. Kaneohe Hawaii. 30 july 2016
With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan complete, Hirono wants the Pentagon to pay closer attention to the Pacific. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The hearing was on the end of America’s two decade-long intervention in Afghanistan and the future of counterterrorism operations.

Hirono noted that the Pentagon’s proposed budget for operations in the Pacific fell short of requests by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp Smith on Oahu, which oversees all operations in the region.

The Homeland Defense Radar – Hawaii is a controversial missile defense project that Congress has continued to fund despite efforts by Pentagon officials to zero out its budget.

“Hawaii is protected,” Austin told Hirono during the hearing. “This is an issue that we continue to look at and we can be rest assured that Hawaii will not be unprotected.”

The latest congressional funding authorizes $75 million to support the continued development and eventual construction of the HDR-H. The project is divisive, with supporters and detractors both in Hawaii and in the military.

“I brought it up because this is the second year in a row that Congress has had to restore that funding to keep it going,” Hirono said in an interview after the hearing. “DOD continues to take the position that we don’t need HDR-Hawaii.”

Supporters see the radar as a critical defense program, especially given the potential threat from North Korea, and say it has the potential to boost Hawaii’s struggling economy. But skeptics argue that the system will be obsolete before it’s finished and that it would threaten habitats for local wildlife and ancient Hawaiian cultural sites.

“I’ve said to DOD that I’m very open to some other program to keep Hawaii safe,” Hirono said. “But until you explain it to me, I’m going to continue to push for HDR Hawaii.”

During the hearing, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth — a disabled Army veteran and University of Hawaii Manoa graduate — announced her intention to introduce a bill that would call for a nonpartisan review of the failures of the Afghan war.

Hirono offered support for such a measure during the hearing, noting that serious failures persisted for two decades through four administrations. “I was particularly interested in lessons learned, because it’s very clear that they didn’t have an accurate assessment of what was happening in this complex situation,” Hirono said during the interview.

The Biden administration has faced criticism over the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan that saw Afghans rushing the airport, a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghan civilians, and a subsequent American drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians.

A pair of boots is displayed as part of a memorial aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Aug. 29, 2021, in remembrance of the 13 service members recently killed in Afghanistan. The memorial, comprised of community donations, was displayed at the entrance of MCBH. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Samantha Sanchez)
Boots line the road near the entrance to Marine Corps Base Hawaii in remembrance of the 13 service members recently killed during the evacuation of Kabul. Samantha Sanchez/USMC/2021

Ultimately, Hirono said that she’s glad that Biden went forward with the withdrawal. “Clearly there are lessons to be learned in terms of the evacuation, but I think the decision to get us out of this forever war was a good one,” she said during the hearing.

Advocates and lawmakers, including Afghan war veteran and Hawaii Rep. Kai Kahele had asked the Biden administration to begin evacuating civilians in the spring to no avail. A mixture of aid workers, veterans groups and others have continued efforts to try to get them out, communicating with stranded friends and colleagues over messaging apps.

Over 122,000 people were airlifted in a tumultuous effort by the U.S. military and commercial planes chartered by private groups. But a State Department official told reporters that “the majority” of Afghans who applied for special visas for American allies were left behind.

“We’re going to need to use other resources in order to do that,” Hirono said during the interview. “Because this is not going to be a military operation of the sort that we saw during the evacuation process.”

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