US military leaders favored keeping troops in Afghanistan

Politics

WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — In their first congressional testimony on the tumultuous final months of America’s longest war, top U.S. military officers on Tuesday acknowledged misjudging the fragility of Afghanistan’s army and said they believed the U.S. should have kept at least several thousand troops in the country to prevent a rapid takeover by the Taliban.

Without saying what advice he had given President Joe Biden last spring when Biden was considering whether to keep any troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee it was his personal opinion that at least 2,500 were needed to guard against a collapse of the Kabul government.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command had overseen the final months of the U.S. war, said he agreed with Milley’s assessment. He also declined to say what he had recommended to Biden.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Milley why he did not choose to resign after his advice was rejected.

Milley, who was appointed to his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President Donald Trump and retained by Biden, said it was his responsibility to provide the commander in chief with his best advice.

“The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice,” Milley said. “He doesn’t have to make those decisions just because we are generals. And it would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to resign just because my advice was not taken.”

Testifying alongside Milley and McKenzie, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin defended the military’s execution of a frantic airlift from Kabul and asserted it will be “difficult but absolutely possible” to contain future threats from Afghanistan without troops on the ground. Under questioning, he, too, declined to say what advice he had given Biden about whether to make a full troop withdrawal.

Milley cited “a very real possibility” that al-Qaida or the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate could reconstitute in Afghanistan under Taliban rule and present a terrorist threat to the United States in the next 12 to 36 months.

It was al-Qaida’s use of Afghanistan as a base from which to plan and execute its attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, that triggered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan a month later.

“And we must remember that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with al-Qaida,” Milley said. “I have no illusions who we are dealing with. It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will further fracture into civil war.”

Austin questioned decisions made over the 20-year course of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. In retrospect, he said, the American government may have put too much faith in its ability to build a viable Afghan government.

“We helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “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. It would be dishonest to claim otherwise.”

Asked why the United States did not foresee the rapid collapse of the Afghan army, Milley said that in his judgment, the U.S. military lost its ability to see and understand the true condition of the Afghan forces when it ended the practice some years ago of having advisers alongside the Afghans on the battlefield.

“You can’t measure the human heart with a machine. You have to be there,” Milley said.

Austin acknowledged shortcomings in the final airlift from Hamid Karzai International Airport that began Aug. 14, such as an initial wave of violence at and near the airfield that led to multiple deaths of Afghan civilians. But he asserted that the airlift was a historic accomplishment that removed 124,000 people from Taliban rule.

“To be clear, those first two days were difficult,” said Austin, who is a veteran of the war. “We all watched with alarm the images of Afghans rushing the runway and our aircraft. We all remember the scenes of confusion outside the airport. But within 48 hours, our troops restored order, and process began to take hold.”

Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services panel, told Austin and Milley that the withdrawal and evacuation amounted to an “avoidable disaster.”

Republicans, in particular, have intensified their attacks on Biden’s decision to pull all troops out of Afghanistan by Aug. 30, saying it left the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism. They are demanding more details on the suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 13 American service members in the final days of the withdrawal.

Inhofe has peppered the Pentagon with a lengthy list of questions about multiple aspects of the withdrawal, including the suicide bombing on Aug. 26 at Kabul’s international airport that killed 169 Afghans in addition to the American service members. He also demands information about decision-making over the summer as it became apparent that the Taliban were overwhelming U.S.-backed Afghan forces.

“We need a full accounting of every factor and decision that led us to where we are today and a real plan for defending America moving forward,” Inhofe wrote last week.

The withdrawal ended the longest war in U.S. history. The Biden administration, and some Democrats in Congress, have argued that former President Donald Trump bears some of the blame for the war ending in a Taliban victory, since his administration signed a deal with the Taliban in 2020 that promised a full American withdrawal by May 2021. They also have pointed to a yearslong U.S. failure to build an Afghan military that could stand up to the Taliban.

“This is not a Democratic or a Republican problem. These failures have been manifesting over four presidential administrations of both political parties,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I, said the day after the Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15.

While Tuesday’s hearing largely focused on the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaotic evacuation of Americans, Afghans and others from the country, other topics came up including Milley’s action during the final months of Trump’s presidency.

“I know, I am certain, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese. … And it was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: Stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”

Milley has been at the center of controversy after reports that he made two calls to Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army to assure him that the United States was not suddenly going to go to war with or attack China. Details of the calls were first aired in excerpts from the recently released book “Peril” by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

Both Milley and Austin have defended the U.S. military’s execution of an Afghanistan withdrawal that Biden ordered in April. The pullout was largely completed by early July, but several hundred troops were kept in Kabul, along with some defensive equipment, to protect a U.S. diplomatic presence in the capital. The State Department initially said the diplomats would remain after the military withdrawal was completed by Aug. 31, but when the Afghan forces collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, leaving the Taliban in charge, a frantic evacuation began.

The Pentagon has defended its execution of an airlift from Kabul airport that transported more than 120,000 people while acknowledging that it got off to a chaotic start and was under near-constant threat of terrorist attack.

“The Biden administration’s avalanche of incompetence has damaged our international reputation and humiliated the United States on the world stage,” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa, both Republicans, wrote in the Des Moines Register. “Yet, our president and secretary of state continue to pretend that the withdrawal from Afghanistan was a historic success.”

Cotton and others have questioned the viability of U.S. plans to contain al-Qaida and the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate by using intelligence-collection assets and attack planes based outside of Afghanistan.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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