Top generals told lawmakers Tuesday that they previously recommended keeping around 2,500 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan, contradicting earlier statements by President Biden that no one had advised him against a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country last month.
In sworn testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both said they assessed as early as last fall that an accelerated withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan would likely cause the Western-backed Afghan government and military to collapse. While both generals declined to comment on their specific recommendations to the president, they indicated that their personal views on how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan were communicated to then-President Donald Trump as well as to Biden.
“In the fall of 2020, my analysis was that an accelerated withdrawal without meeting specific and necessary conditions risks losing the substantial gains made in Afghanistan, damaging U.S. worldwide credibility, and could precipitate a collapse of the [Afghan National Security Forces] and the Afghan government, resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war,” Milley said in his opening statement to the committee.
“That was a year ago,” he continued, adding, “My assessment remained consistent throughout.”
Milley said that based on his assessment, and the advice of commanders, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a memo on Nov. 9, 2020, recommending that the Trump administration “maintain U.S. forces at a level between about 2,500 and 4,500 in Afghanistan until conditions were met for further reduction.”
Despite this recommendation, Milley said that two days later, on Nov. 11, “I received an unclassified, signed order directing the U.S. military to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan no later than 15 January 2021.” However, he said, “after further discussions regarding the risks associated with such a withdrawal, the order was rescinded.”
By the time Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20, Milley said, “the strategic situation” in Afghanistan was “stalemate.” He said the Biden administration “conducted a rigorous interagency review of the situation in Afghanistan in February, March and April,” during which his views, as well as the views of the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, McKenzie and Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the final commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, “were all given serious consideration by the administration.”
“We provided a broad range of options and our assessment of their potential outcomes,” Milley said. Ultimately, on April 14, “the president announced his decision and the U.S. military received a change of mission to retrograde all U.S. military forces.”
McKenzie confirmed that he too believed it would be “appropriate” for 2,500 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan, “and if we went below that number, in fact, we would probably witness a collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan military.”
While McKenzie repeatedly declined to discuss the details of his recommendations to the president, he said, “I’ve given you my view, which I think you can draw your own conclusions from.”
McKenzie indicated that a similar recommendation from Miller, who stepped down from his post in July, was communicated directly to Biden. “I was present when that discussion occurred, and I am confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to them very thoughtfully,” McKenzie said.
In response to a later question, McKenzie said that “it would be reasonable for the committee to assume” that both Biden and Trump received Miller’s recommendation, which the former commander recently told lawmakers he’d issued in January.
The testimony provided by the generals Tuesday notably seemed to undermine statements made by Biden during a televised interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Aug. 19, just four days after the Afghan government collapsed, allowing the Taliban to take control of Kabul. Biden told Stephanopoulos that “no one” that he “can recall” advised him to keep about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
“That wasn't true,” Biden said during the interview.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended Biden’s comments to Stephanopoulos on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.
“As @POTUS told ABC, ending the war in Afghanistan was in our national interest,” Psaki wrote. “He said advice was split, but consensus of top military advisors was 2500 troops staying meant escalation due to deal by the previous admin,” referring to the peace agreement the Trump administration had negotiated with the Taliban in February 2020, in which the U.S. would leave Afghanistan in 14 months.
Some Republicans on the committee argued that the testimony given by Milley and McKenzie showed Biden had ignored the advice of military advisers and lied to the American public about it.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, attempted unsuccessfully to get Milley and McKenzie to characterize Biden’s remarks from the ABC News interview as “false,” saying that the generals do not “have a duty to cover for the president when he's not telling the truth.” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., questioned why Milley did not resign after Biden decided, against his advice, to fully withdraw from Afghanistan.
Milley argued that resigning in protest over the president’s actions would be a “political act,” explaining that the president is not obligated to agree with his military advice.
“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 are going to accept and do or not. That's not our job.”
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