Report

Pentagon Leaders Contradict Biden Over Troops in Afghanistan

Lawmakers raked Gen. Milley, Gen. McKenzie, and Defense Secretary Austin over the coals for the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie
(From left) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Sept. 28. Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Top Defense Department officials testified publicly for the first time on Tuesday about the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan amid a wider public reckoning about the chaotic end to America’s longest war.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie faced pointed questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee about the sudden collapse of the Afghan army, the evacuation from the Kabul airport, and future plans to check the proliferation of terrorist groups in the region.

“How did this avoidable disaster happen? Why were Americans left behind?” Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the panel, asked during opening remarks.

Top Defense Department officials testified publicly for the first time on Tuesday about the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan amid a wider public reckoning about the chaotic end to America’s longest war.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie faced pointed questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee about the sudden collapse of the Afghan army, the evacuation from the Kabul airport, and future plans to check the proliferation of terrorist groups in the region.

“How did this avoidable disaster happen? Why were Americans left behind?” Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the panel, asked during opening remarks.

After the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Afghan army, followed by the evaporation of the Afghan government on Aug. 15, over 6,000 U.S. troops were dispatched to Kabul to secure the airport and support the evacuation of 120,000 American citizens, allies, and at-risk Afghans. Austin defended the 17-day evacuation, describing it as the largest airlift in U.S. history. “No other military in the world could have pulled this off,” he said in opening remarks.

But the evacuation wasn’t complete. On Monday, a senior State Department official told reporters that at least 85 U.S. citizens and 79 green card holders have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the military departure on Aug. 31, but the official noted that more people may have left independently of continued U.S. evacuation efforts. The official estimated about 100 Americans and legal permanent residents are still waiting to be evacuated.

Before the evacuation even became an issue there was the sudden collapse of the Afghan army and government, which caught the Pentagon’s leaders by surprise. 

Both Milley and McKenzie acknowledged that the agreement struck between the Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020 had severely diminished the morale of the Afghan National Army, leading to wholesale defections during this year’s onslaught by the Taliban. McKenzie acknowledged that he had recommended maintaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, worried that a wholesale withdrawal would hasten the collapse of the Afghan military, remarks which were echoed by Milley. Austin later confirmed that their recommendations were received by President Joe Biden.

But Austin also said later that any residual U.S. troop presence after the Aug. 31 deadline could have led to renewed clashes with the Taliban. “Had we stayed past that date that was agreed early on, the Taliban would begin to attack our forces,” he said.

Lawmakers zeroed in on the apparent contradiction between the military’s recommendation of maintaining a small force and Biden’s contention that his top military advisors had suggested no such thing. “No. No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an August interview when asked about news reports that generals had recommended keeping 2,500 troops in the country. 

The generals cautioned that the very danger that led to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the first place—the threat of transnational terrorism—could now rear its head again. Milley, Biden’s top military advisor, told lawmakers, “The war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms that we wanted, with the Taliban in power.”

Milley cautioned that al Qaeda or the Islamic State could now develop the capabilities to threaten the United States within a year. “A reconstituted al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the U.S. is a very real possibility, and those conditions to include activity in ungoverned spaces could present themselves in the next 12 to 36 months,” he said.

The Biden administration has said it will now rely on “over the horizon” operations reliant on drone strikes to monitor and prevent the proliferation of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, plans that have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers, counterterrorism experts, and human rights advocates. These concerns were heightened by the Pentagon’s acknowledgement that it misidentified aid worker Zamarai Ahmadi as an Islamic State operative, precipitating a drone strike that killed Ahmadi and nine other civilians, including seven children, on Aug. 29. 

McKenzie told lawmakers that while U.S. forces still have the ability to monitor the situation in Afghanistan, it is limited without an on-the-ground presence. “It is very hard to do this. It is not impossible to do this,” he said.

Milley also addressed revelations contained in a new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa that he spoke to his Chinese counterpart, Li Zuocheng, to reassure Beijing in the latter days of the Trump administration that the United States would not conduct a surprise attack. The general has faced accusations of disloyalty from critics and suggestions that he sought to bypass the military chain of command.

Milley said that the two calls last October and this January were in response to intelligence that suggested that Chinese leaders were concerned about the prospect of a U.S. attack, and he noted that senior Trump administration officials were briefed on the calls. 

“I know, I am certain, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it is my directed responsibility, and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary, to convey that intent to the Chinese,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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