Top Pentagon officials have stated publicly for the first time that they personally believed it would be a mistake to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie all testified during a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The hearing featured rigorous questioning from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike have criticized the chaotic withdrawal that saw U.S. troops try to coordinate a mammoth evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies as the Taliban quickly gained control of the country. Criticism of the administration's actions became heightened when 13 U.S. troops were killed in an attack near Kabul airport by the terrorist group ISIS-K.
Austin, Milley and McKenzie all took great care when answering questions about the withdrawal and would not discuss their conversations with President Biden.
"I will give you my honest opinion, and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation [to the president]," McKenzie said. "I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time. I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government."
This is at odds with comments Biden made during an interview in August when he said his military advisers did not tell him to keep troops on the ground past the withdrawal deadline.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden had made clear in the interview that advisers were split over the issue. She said Biden's military advisers also made clear that had 2,500 troops been left in Afghanistan, they would have had to fight the Taliban, and would need to be reinforced.
"There was a range of viewpoints, as was evidenced by their testimony today," Psaki told reporters, noting that Biden had asked his advisers for their frank assessments and recommendations.
"He didn't think it was in the interests of the American people" to keep a troop presence in Afghanistan, she said. "Ultimately, it's up to the commander-in-chief to make a decision."
Milley did say that he felt the military commanders on the ground were listened to.
"I think there's a difference between us having an opportunity to have a voice," he said, "but I firmly believe in civilian control of the military, and I am required and the military commanders are required to give our best military advice, but the decision makers are not required in any manner, shape or form to follow that advice."
Milley later emphasized that the withdrawal was in fact two operations: the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country and the "noncombatant evacuation."
"It was a logistical success but a strategic failure. And I think those are two different terms," he said.
"We need to consider some uncomfortable truths"
When asked why the Pentagon didn't anticipate the swift collapse of the Afghan military and government, Austin, a former four-star Army general, said: "We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, we didn't grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders."
Ashraf Ghani, then president of Afghanistan, fled the country with no notice as the Taliban quickly took control, a factor the Pentagon leaders said deeply affected the morale of the Afghan military.
Austin later pushed back against claims that the Biden administration should not have shut down Bagram Air Base, saying retaining the base would have "required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm's way, just to operate and defend it."
Milley defends his actions in Trump administration
Afghanistan was not expected to be the sole focus of Tuesday's hearing. Milley was also questioned about recent claims in a book by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa alleging that Milley called his counterpart in the Chinese military to ease fears about then-President Donald Trump launching an attack following his defeat in the presidential election.
Republican backlash to those claims was swift. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called for Milley to be fired in the wake of the claims, and Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, labeled Milley's actions "treasonous." The White House has defended Milley's actions.
During the hearing, Milley defended his actions, saying that he was simply carrying out his job responsibilities.
Milley said he was instructed by Mark Esper, then secretary of defense, to make the call to his Chinese counterpart because of intelligence that "caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States."
He added: "I am certain President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese and it is my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent."
Milley later said that he had been interviewed about the closing days of the Trump administration by multiple authors but that he had not read any of the books.
On whether to stay past Aug. 31
Milley told Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that had the U.S. military remained in Afghanistan past the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline date, Americans would have been exposed to substantial risk.
"That is exactly what we assessed," he said, "that if we stayed past the 31st, the risk of force, U.S. military casualties, the risk to the mission, the ability to executive and continue to execute a [noncombatant evacuation], and most importantly the risk to the American citizens that are still there was going to go to ... very high levels."
Asked whether it is likely there would have been another attack on American servicemembers had the military stayed, Milley responded: "I would say that that is a near certainty."
During her questioning, Warren said Milley had come before the Armed Services Committee for years with a rosier depiction of Afghan forces.
"[This] reminds me of all the years that I've sat now in the Senate Armed Services Committee, and how many times the generals have come in front of us, and when you point out every way in which the Afghan government was failing and the Afghan army was failing, the generals respond with, 'but we're turning the corner now.' "
Milley responded: "I didn't say we were turning the corner, senator. I said we could sustain them."
At another point in his testimony, Milley said that had the U.S. stayed, "on the 1st of September, we were going to go to war again with the Taliban, of that there was no doubt."
He said staying past the 31st was militarily feasibly, but would have required approximately 25,000 more U.S. troops and would have resulted in "significant casualties."
On drone strike that killed civilians
McKenzie told lawmakers that he took responsibility for the Aug. 29 drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians.
"We acted based on the intelligence read that we saw on ground. We acted several times on intelligence that we saw, and we were successful in other occasions in preventing attacks," he said. "This time, tragically, we were wrong."
At the time, the U.S. said the attack killed ISIS-K terrorists. The group was responsible for the attack near Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members who were aiding in the evacuation efforts.
On how many Americans remain in Afghanistan
Austin said though the numbers fluctuate "daily," he estimates there are fewer than 100 American citizens who want to leave the country.
Austin added that 21 Americans were evacuated Tuesday and that the work to evacuate remaining Americans is ongoing.