Pentagon leaders faced a gantlet of congressional frustration Tuesday as they tried to distribute blame for the chaotic end to America’s longest war during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said they believed the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last month was a mistake, and said they'd recommended keeping at least 2,500 troops there to both President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump.
It was the military leaders' view that “the withdrawal of those forces would inevitably lead to the collapse of those Afghan forces” and the Afghan government, McKenzie explained.
On Nov. 11, 2020, two days after he fired then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Trump ordered a complete withdrawal by Jan. 15, Milley said. After pushback from military leaders, Trump rescinded it, but ordered a reduction to 2,500 troops.
Biden ordered a complete withdrawal in April, setting a target date of Sept. 11. The Pentagon pushed back again, but Biden overruled it and moved up the withdrawal to the end of August.
Advice for Biden
Milley, McKenzie and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declined to tell senators at the hearing the specific advice they gave to the president, but they maintained that military views were fully presented and heard.
That conflicts with what Biden has said. During an interview with ABC News in July, the president said he did not remember being advised to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. “No, no one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
At the Senate Armed Services hearing, Milley also appeared to place some of the blame for the Taliban’s swift takeover on the Doha Agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. Reached in February 2020, the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban committed to a complete U.S. withdrawal by May 1, 2021, so long as the Taliban met stipulated conditions.
Under the agreement, there were seven conditions for the Taliban and eight conditions for the U.S., Milley said. Other than not directly attacking U.S. forces, the Taliban failed to meet the conditions placed on them, he said.
Milley and McKenzie both said the Doha Agreement hurt the morale of Afghan forces.
The Doha Agreement “did negatively affect the performance of the Afghan Security Forces,” McKenzie said.
Milley added that committing to a withdrawal by a specific date without having certain conditions met was a mistake.
“Two presidents in a row put dates on it,” Milley said. “Don’t put dates on it. Make it conditions-based.”
Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Milley why, if his advice was ignored, he didn’t resign.
Milley replied that he is fully committed to civilian control of the military, and the commander in chief is under no obligation to follow the recommendations given by any of his advisors.
“It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken," Milley said. "My dad didn't get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima."
Milley also cited the 13 servicemembers killed by terrorists as they guarded Hamid Karzai International Airport last month. “I’m not going to turn my back on them. They can’t resign, so I’m not going to resign,” Milley said. “There’s no way.”
Republicans on the committee, from ranking member James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma to Dan Sullivan of Alaska, laid the blame for the frantic rush to evacuate more than 124,000 people through Kabul’s airport, and the associated deaths and injuries, squarely at Biden’s feet.
Some Democrats, including Tim Kaine of Virginia and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, praised Biden for bringing an end to two decades of war in Afghanistan. But Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut criticized the evacuation, saying lawmakers still don’t know how many Americans or Afghanistan partners were left behind after the operation ended.
“We don’t have an estimate on the number because no one is in charge right now,” Blumenthal said.