Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that Trump’s 2020 peace deal with the Taliban had a “demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers” that U.S. military officials didn’t fully realize. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he wouldn’t advise announcing specific troop withdrawal deadlines, as both Trump and Biden did.
“Two president in a row put dates on it,” Milley said. “My advice is don’t put specific dates. Make things conditions-based. That is how I’ve been trained over many, many years.”
In the most politically sensitive remarks of the hearing, two top commanders said their personal view was that 2,500 American troops should have stayed to bolster the Afghan government.
“My assessment was, back in the fall of ’20, and it remained consistent throughout, that we should keep a steady state of 2,500,” Milley said.
The head of Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, testified that he believed 2,500 troops would be needed and that a full withdrawal would lead to a Taliban takeover. He wouldn’t say if he gave that advice directly to Biden, but suggested he made his views known.
“I’ve stated consistently that my position was, if you go below 2,500, you’re going to look at a collapse of the Afghan military,” McKenzie said. “I did not foresee it to be days. I thought it would take months.”
Biden has denied that his military advisers urged him to keep troops in Afghanistan.
In an Aug. 18 interview with ABC News, Biden pressed back on whether he was told that his top military advisers warned against his withdrawal deadline.
“No, they didn’t,” Biden said. “It was split. That wasn’t true.” Pushed again, he said “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet Tuesday that the generals’ testimony backed up Biden’s contention that the “consensus of top military advisors was 2500 troops staying meant escalation due to deal by the previous” administration.
Milley told senators that by Aug. 25 — after Kabul had fallen and U.S. troops were struggling to maintain control of the city’s airport while facilitating an evacuation of more than 124,000 people — the recommendation from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders on the ground was that all troops should leave the country as planned by Aug. 31. And he rejected the suggestion by Republican Senator Tom Cotton that he or other officers should have resigned in opposition to the withdrawal.
“It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken,” Milley said. “This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we’re going to accept and do or not. That’s not our job.”
Austin reiterated comments that the rapid collapse of the Afghan security forces took the Pentagon by surprise despite the years of funding and training the U.S. poured into the effort to resist the Taliban.
“The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away — in many cases without firing a shot — took us all by surprise,” Austin said. “It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”
“We did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks,” Austin said of the Afghan government forces. “We didn’t anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement, and that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which – and for whom – many of the Afghan forces would fight.”
It was the first time the U.S.’s top military officials testified on last month’s withdrawal, following the Taliban takeover, and from the start, the questions from lawmakers had a sharp partisan tone.
“Throughout the spring, we saw many districts quickly fall to the Taliban — many without firing a shot,” Senator James Inhofe, the panel’s top Republican, said in opening remarks. Now, “President Biden’s decision to withdraw has expanded the threat of terrorism — and increased the likelihood of an attack on the homeland.”
The U.S. spent a generation building up Afghan’s officer corps and at least $83 billion to train, equip, operate and sustain it. As many as 60,000 Afghan National Security Force members were killed over 20 years, along with more than 2,400 Americans.
Democrats have focused on U.S. mistakes over 20 years, and emphasized that Biden inherited the peace deal with the Taliban reached during Trump’s administration, which would have had troops out months before Biden’s August deadline.
“The path that led to this moment was paved with years of mistakes, from our catastrophic pivot to Iraq, to our failure to handle Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, to the flawed Doha Agreement signed by President Trump,” Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s chairman, said in his opening statement.
Amid the turmoil of the American withdrawal and evacuation efforts, 13 U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing at a gate into Kabul’s airport. Yet a number of Americans and many more Afghans who had worked alongside them were left behind. Austin and others said the U.S. remains committed to helping getting them out, an effort complicated by the lack of an American presence in Afghanistan.
The U.S. withdrawal has weighed on Biden and raised questions about his foreign policy competence after he ran on promises to restore American credibility abroad. But the White House defended the withdrawal.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the commander-in-chief to make a decision,” Psaki said. “He made a decision that it was time to end the 20-year war.”
Anticipating other lines of criticism leveled at the administration, Austin said in his opening remarks that retaining the Bagram air base would have required 5,000 troops and that the facility had “little value” given its distance from Kabul. A number of Republicans have said the U.S. should have kept open that sprawling base along with, or instead of, the Kabul airport that was used for the evacuation effort.
In addition, questions have been raised about a botched U.S. drone strike in Kabul carried out in the middle of the American evacuation that killed 10 civilians, including seven children. It has prompted doubts about assurances by Biden and the military that the U.S. will be able to prevent Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists by conducting “over-the-horizon” strikes based on intelligence gathered without the benefit of U.S. forces and agents on the ground.
Inhofe said that even if such strikes were feasible “we can’t strike al-Qaeda in Afghanistan because we’re worried about what the Taliban will do to the Americans still there.”
But Austin testified that “over-the horizon operations are difficult but absolutely possible. And the intelligence that supports them comes from a variety of sources, not just U.S. troops on the ground.”
–With assistance from Peter Martin, Jennifer Epstein, Nick Wadhams and Justin Sink.