By Karoun Demirjian, Alex Horton, John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez,
The Pentagon leaders who presided over the Afghanistan war’s conclusion said Tuesday that they had predicted Kabul’s government and its military would “collapse” after the United States’ departure but refused to fault President Biden for withdrawing U.S. forces, even as they agreed the haphazard exit was a “strategic failure.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, and Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they had advised both Biden and his predecessor, President Donald Trump, to keep at least 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan. It was his belief, Milley said, that “an accelerated withdrawal” risked losing “substantial gains” made over two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, “damaging U.S. worldwide credibility and . . . resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war.”
Tuesday’s hearing marked the first time Milley, McKenzie and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have faced lawmakers publicly since last month’s evacuation from Kabul, a deadly 17-day race that has left unresolved the future of counterterrorism operations and the fate of Americans who remain stranded. Much of the session involved lawmakers, depending on their party, trying to enlist the generals’ support in blaming either Trump or Biden for the failures of the past and Afghanistan’s uncertain future.
Milley revealed during one of those exchanges that it was not until Aug. 25 — 10 days after the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital and less than a week before the last U.S. military personnel left — that the Joint Chiefs of Staff made the “unanimous” recommendation to Biden that he withdraw all troops rather than prolong the evacuation beyond its Aug. 31 deadline. A day later, 13 service members and at least 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing. Biden has highlighted that recommendation to defend his decision to leave Afghanistan, without mentioning that it came only after the Taliban had taken control of Kabul.
Republicans seized on those admissions to accuse Biden of lying to the American people about his military advisers’ recommendations and misleading the country about how fully the evacuation of Americans and eligible Afghans would be carried out. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) challenged Milley to explain why he didn’t resign in protest.
Milley dismissed the suggestion, calling the prospect of resigning an “incredible act of political defiance” that would be unfathomable. Biden, Milley added, was under no obligation to heed the advice of his generals.
“This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we are going to accept,” he said. “That’s not our job.”
Throughout the hearing, Milley drew special scrutiny from GOP lawmakers for conversations with his Chinese counterpart during the waning weeks of Trump’s presidency, when Milley assured him the United States was not about to attack Beijing’s interests. Milley defended the calls, revealed in the book “Peril” by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and reporter Robert Costa, as routine discussions that had been blessed and directed by Trump’s senior aides.
The Washington Post
Milley faced numerous questions Tuesday about communications with his Chinese counterpart during the final days of the Trump administration.
As the three senior Defense Department officials testified on Capitol Hill, White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended Biden’s handling of the withdrawal, saying the president took into account the military’s counsel.
“There was a range of viewpoints” that had been presented, Psaki said during a news conference, explaining that Biden was not willing to entertain the “escalation and increase in troops” and the “potential loss of casualties” that would have accompanied staying past the end of August.
Austin, Milley and McKenzie, like others in the Biden administration, criticized the deal Trump struck with Taliban leaders to end the war, an agreement that disenfranchised the Afghan security forces and robbed the United States of leverage it could have used for a more controlled exit, they said.
“The intelligence was clear that if we did not leave in accordance with that agreement, the Taliban would recommence attacks on our forces,” Austin said.
Milley surmised there was “near certainty” of additional attacks on U.S. troops and “significant casualties” had the military tried to stay beyond the deadline. Remaining into September, the general said, would have required committing up to 25,000 additional personnel to reopen abandoned bases and retake Kabul, which by that time was being patrolled by an estimated 6,000 Taliban fighters.
The Washington Post
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listens as Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday on the end of military operations in Afghanistan. On the far right is Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command.
All three military leaders acknowledged that even their most cautious estimates did not account for the Afghan government’s collapse in so short a span. Milley blamed the meltdown’s surprising speed on the Taliban having “failed to fully honor” its commitments under the peace agreement, with the exception of its promise not to attack U.S. forces as they carried out evacuations from Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The United States’ decision to withdraw military contractors doomed the Afghan military, which was built to be dependent on those networks for logistical and operational support, the defense officials said.
“When you pull contractors, you pull troops. That, I think is one of many contributing factors to the rapid collapse. So that’s a big lesson,” Milley said, calling it one of several takeaways that should inform how the Pentagon approaches future wars.
For much of Tuesday’s hearing, the three military officials appeared to be in lock-step. But upon being challenged on some key questions about the withdrawal, there was a notable dissonance.
When asked by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) about whether the pullout had “severely damaged” the United States’ credibility, Milley replied, “I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world and with adversaries is being intensely reviewed.
“Damage,” he added, “is one word that could be used.”
Austin objected to that characterization, pointing out that the world had watched the United States lead a historic evacuation of 124,000 people in just 17 days.
“I think our credibility remains solid,” he said, while acknowledging “there will be people who question things going forward.”
The military leaders were adamant that they had kept all U.S. partners and allies informed about their plans for withdrawal, an apparent attempt to answer European critics who have complained the United States left them in the dark.
They were also explicit in their defense of the decision to shutter Bagram airfield, which for many years served as the U.S. military’s nerve center north of the capital. Many Republican politicians have argued the facility should have remained open, but the defense officials said Tuesday that the military could not have sustained operations there and in Kabul with only the 650 troops initially left in Afghanistan to defend the U.S. Embassy and secure the airport.
The military’s departure has left the United States dependent on weak diplomatic and strategic alliances with Afghanistan’s neighbors to facilitate exit routes for those still awaiting evacuation and vantage points for monitoring threats emanating from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The president has insisted that the military has adequate “over the horizon” capabilities to police what goes on in Afghanistan from afar. Recent experience, however, has belied that confidence: On Tuesday, the defense leaders again apologized for the Aug. 29 drone strike that killed 10 in Kabul, including seven children and a local employee of a U.S. aid organization, calling the intelligence that led them to believe they were tracking an Islamic State operative “tragically wrong.”
All three acknowledged that over-the-horizon operations are “difficult” and “not as effective” as having people on the ground. Yet no one offered a clear answer as to how the United States plans to make up for that shortfall.
The Taliban on Tuesday formally called on the United States to stop operating drones in Afghan airspace, which it called a violation of the peace agreement struck with Washington and international laws.
When pressed to explain how the United States planned to improve tenuous regional partnerships and on whether cooperation with Russia was part of the calculus, Austin acknowledged the Pentagon had recently explored the seriousness of an offer made by Russian President Vladimir Putin to host U.S. troops on its bases in Central Asia — though the defense secretary added that “we’re not asking the Russians for anything.”
The five countries of Central Asia that were once socialist republics of the Soviet Union have been reluctant to strike independent basing deals with Washington for fear of crossing Moscow. McKenzie insisted Tuesday that those countries desire relationships with the United States “because they want alternatives to Russia, and they want alternatives to China.”
The three officials struggled to quantify how much of a threat that Afghanistan — and the al-Qaeda elements reconstituting there — will pose to the United States in the future.
“Too early to tell,” Milley said, musing that it would take “six to 12 months . . . to see which direction things are going to go.”
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Eugene Scott and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.