WASHINGTON — Top military leaders said Tuesday that they had recommended to President Joe Biden that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan even after the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline, contradicting the president's assertion last month that his advisers did not tell him to leave a small military presence in the country.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, who oversaw the withdrawal as head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony before Congress that they had communicated that advice to the president.
Biden, however, was asked in an interview with ABC News in mid-August whether any of his military advisers told him to leave 2,500 troops in the country.
"No," Biden said. "No one said that to me that I can recall.”
McKenzie also said in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that he had held the view that a withdrawal of forces would "inevitably" lead to the collapse of the Afghan forces and government.
Milley confirmed later in the hearing that he agreed with the recommendation to leave behind a force of a few thousand troops. He added that if the U.S. military had stayed in Afghanistan past Aug. 31, the risk of attacks on both American civilians and service members would have increased. Additionally, remaining in the country would have required 15,000 to 20,000 troops and a move to re-establish control of Bagram Airfield, he said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki pushed back Tuesday against suggestions that Biden misled the public on what his military advisers were recommending, and said that reporters were not taking the entirety of Biden’s ABC interview into context. “The president made clear that the advice was split,” she said. “If there’s conflicting advice given, by necessity some peoples’ advice will not be taken.”
Their testimony comes as Biden has received fierce criticism domestically and skepticism abroad over his administration’s handling of the withdrawal and its failure to predict the Taliban’s quick return to power. Republicans are trying to capitalize politically on the haphazard execution, and some are calling for the intelligence assessments and diplomatic messages leading up to the withdrawal. Biden, meanwhile, has steadfastly defended his decision, although his job approval rating has continued to drop in polls.
During the hearing, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin defended the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops and evacuation of Americans and Afghans from Afghanistan last month and bemoaned the failure of the Afghan government to retain power.
He said the administration began planning evacuation scenarios soon after Biden decided in April that he wanted to pull all troops out of the country. Despite the preparations, Austin acknowledged that the Taliban’s quick takeover “took us all by surprise.”
“Let’s be clear, those first two days were difficult. We all watched with alarm the images of Afghans rushing the runway and our aircraft,” he said about the evacuations that began at Kabul’s airport in mid-August.
Within 48 hours, U.S. troops restored order at the airport, Austin said, and ultimately evacuated more than 124,000 Americans and Afghans.
“It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history and it was executed in 17 days,” he said. “Was it perfect? Of course not. We moved so many people so quickly out of Kabul that we ran into capacity and screening problems at intermediate staging bases outside Afghanistan.”
Austin acknowledged the deaths of 13 U.S. service members in a suicide bombing at the airport and a U.S. drone strike that was meant to target Islamic State Khorasan group terrorists but mistakenly killed 10 Afghan civilians, including several children. The defense secretary said that in a period of two days, the U.S. had gone from working alongside a democratically elected Afghan government to coordinating “with a longtime enemy.”
Responding to criticism from lawmakers that the U.S. should have retained Bagram Airfield for the evacuation process, Austin said doing so would have required putting as many as 5,000 troops in harm’s way and “would have contributed little to the mission.” He also said so-called over-the-horizon operations launched from outside the country don’t require boots on the ground to gather intelligence.
“Staying longer than we did would have made it even more dangerous for our people and would not have significantly changed the number of evacuees we could get out,” he said.
Milley said a number of lessons could be learned from the last two decades, including understanding how the Afghan military collapsed so quickly. That might include an assessment of whether the U.S. made Afghan forces too dependent on U.S. military tactics, techniques and procedures.
"We absolutely missed the rapid, 11-day collapse of the Afghan military and the Afghan government," he said, adding that intelligence assessments clearly indicated that the country would ultimately fall after the U.S. withdrawal, although they anticipated a collapse wouldn't happen until at least October.
Milley also said the outcome of the war, which he called "a strategic failure" because the Taliban retook control of the country, was not something that was determined in August, but was the "cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days."
Asked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., if he should have resigned after Biden went against the advice to leave troops, Milley dismissed the idea and said it would have been "a political act if I'm resigning in protest."
"My job is to provide advice, my statutory responsibility is to provide legal advice or best military advice to the president," he said. "That's my legal requirement. That's what the law is. The president doesn't have to agree with that advice. He doesn't have to make those decisions just because we're generals."
In another exchange, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., called on Milley and Austin to step down.
"I think this mission was a catastrophe, I think there's no other way to say it and there has to be accountability. I respectively submit it should begin with you," he said.
Asked by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., if America's credibility has been gravely damaged, Milley said, "I think our credibility with allies and partners around the world, and with adversaries, is being intensely reviewed by them ... and I think that damage is one word that could be used, yes."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he thought the Taliban’s resurgence could be tied to the agreement the U.S., under then-President Donald Trump, signed in Doha, Qatar, in 2020 outlining the terms of withdrawal, which the military leaders testified had hurt the morale of the Afghan security forces and negatively affected their performance.
Meanwhile, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member on the committee, said the violence and disarray surrounding the withdrawal were “avoidable.”
“We saw it coming,” he said, adding that Biden ignored the advice of the military and Congress, and “failed to anticipate what all of us knew would happen.”
“President Biden made a strategic decision to leave Afghanistan, which resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. service members, the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians, including women and children — that's what terrorists do — and left American citizens surrounded by the very terrorists who attacked us."
Austin and Milley are also scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. McKenzie is testifying as well.
On Tuesday, Milley also addressed reporting in a new book that said he took steps to prevent Trump from misusing the nuclear arsenal, and conveyed to a Chinese counterpart that he would warn him ahead of time if the U.S. was going to launch an attack on his country. The general said other administration officials were aware of the calls and he was not trying to "usurp authority or insert myself into the chain of command."
"My task at that time was to de-escalate," he said, adding that he made the calls to assure Chinese officials that there would not be attacks by the U.S. military after intelligence officials flagged concerns that the Chinese believed such a strike possible.