WASHINGTON – Pentagon leaders publicly admitted Tuesday advising President Biden not to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan before a chaotic evacuation in which 13 U.S. servicemen died in a suicide bombing and 10 Afghan civilians were killed in an American drone strike.
During a wide-ranging Senate hearing on the war in Afghanistan, General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also defended his actions during the tumultuous last months of the Trump administration, insisting on the fact that appeals to his Chinese counterpart and to a meeting where he told generals to alert him if the president attempted to launch a nuclear weapon was part of his duties as the country’s top military officer.
General Milley insisted he was not bypassing his former boss. “My loyalty to this nation, its people and the Constitution has not and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” he said. “I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a fundamental principle essential to this republic and I am committed to ensuring that the military stays away from domestic politics.”
Some six hours of public testimony from senior Pentagon leaders was at times acrimonious and at times close to political theater. Republican senators who had in the past defended President Donald J. Trump’s desire to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan have demanded the resignation of military leaders who have carried out orders from a Democratic president to withdraw. The Democrats, who have traditionally been tougher on military leaders, offered solace in the form of softer questioning and traced the loopholes in the Trump administration.
When questioned repeatedly by Republican senators, Pentagon leaders broke with part of Mr. Biden’s defense against the withdrawal, acknowledging that they had recommended leaving 2,500 US troops on the ground and warned that the government and the Afghan army could collapse upon fall if the United States withdraws its forces.
General Milley called the “evacuation of non-combatants” from Kabul, the Afghan capital, last month a “logistical success but a strategic failure”, echoing the words of Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, earlier in the hearing.
Through it all, the tough and brash General Milley, the country’s top military official, has sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee as the protagonist and antagonist of a narrative that has changed with every Senator. The other two military leaders invited to the hearing – Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of Army Central Command – seemed at times almost to be supporting actors, because the bulk of the interrogations went to General Milley, who has recently been at the center of political turmoil over the revelations in several books about the Trump presidency.
General Milley said military leaders were able to give advice to Mr Biden ahead of the president’s decision to step down in April. Those views, the general said, had not changed since November, when he recommended Mr. Trump keep US troops in Afghanistan.
But, added the general, “policymakers are not required in any way to follow this advice.”
Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked General Milley why he had not resigned after Mr Biden rejected his advice to keep troops in Afghanistan.
“This country does not want the generals to determine what orders we will accept and do or not. It’s not our job, ”replied the general. He later added: “My father didn’t have a choice to resign to Iwo Jima and those kids over there at Abbey Gate, they don’t have a choice to resign,” the latter referring to the US troops who were stationed at Hamid. Kabul Karzai International Airport in August.
“They can’t quit, so I’m not going to quit,” he said. “There is no way. If the orders are illegal, we are in a different place. But if the orders are legal from the civil authority, I intend to carry them out.
General Milley’s testimony on Tuesday was another chapter in the story of the chaotic final days of the Trump administration, with government officials on edge as they worried about what action Mr. Trump might take. Mr. Austin and Generals Milley and McKenzie are scheduled to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
Several Republican senators reprimanded General Milley both for his actions described in the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of the Washington Post, and for speaking about these actions to the authors.
General Milley said he was instructed by Mark T. Esper, then Secretary of Defense, to call his Chinese counterpart on October 30 because there was “information that led us to believe that the Chinese were ‘worried about an attack on them by the United States. . He added that other senior US officials, including Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, were aware of the calls.
“I know, I’m sure President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it was my direct responsibility by the secretary to convey that intention to the Chinese,” he said. “My task at the time was to defuse. My message was once again consistent: stay calm, steady and defuse. We are not going to attack you.
In an unintentionally funny exchange with Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, General Milley admitted to speaking with several authors who have recently written books on the final months of the Trump presidency. All the books present the general’s actions to control Mr. Trump in a favorable light.
“Woodward yes, Costa no,” replied General Milley, when asked if he had spoken to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Costa about their book.
The general said he hadn’t read any of the books. At that, Ms Blackburn asked him to read them and report back to see if they correctly portrayed his actions.
General Milley also made a frantic phone call with President Nancy Pelosi of California two days after the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill. A transcript of the call in the book said the general agreed with Ms. Pelosi’s characterization of Mr. Trump as “crazy.”
Addressing the Senate panel, General Milley said: “On January 8, Speaker of the House Pelosi called me to inquire about the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. I tried to assure him that the nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process. She was worried and made various personal references characterizing the president. I explained to him that the President is the only nuclear launching authority, and that he does not launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the sanity of the President of the United States.
Later that afternoon, he said, he called on the generals involved in this process to “brush up on these procedures.”
Democrats, like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have asked if leaving troops in Afghanistan for another year would have made a difference. Mr. Austin said no.
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The senators asked the three men why the Pentagon did not predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan army, why the United States did not start evacuating vulnerable Americans and Afghans sooner, and what the Pentagon was doing now to help evacuate the remaining Americans. and Afghans who want to leave the country.
Mr Austin, a retired four-star army general who served in Afghanistan, admitted that the collapse of the Afghan army in the final weeks of the war – in many cases without the Taliban failing fire – had surprised the high commanders.
“We have to take into account some uncomfortable truths: that we have not fully understood the depth of corruption and bad leadership in their senior ranks, that we have not grasped the detrimental effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by the President Ghani of his commanders, that we had not foreseen the snowball effect caused by the agreements that the Taliban commanders made with the local leaders, ”said Mr. Austin, referring to Ashraf Ghani, the former President of Afghanistan who fled the country when the Taliban took control.
“We didn’t fully understand that there weren’t many things that – and for whom – many Afghan forces would be fighting,” Austin said.
In his opening remarks and throughout the hearing, Mr. Austin defended the Biden administration’s decisions to shut down the sprawling Bagram Air Base, the main military hub in Afghanistan, in early July, and to target resources towards the defense of Kabul International Airport as the main gateway into and out of the country. He admitted that the Pentagon had misjudged the Afghan army’s readiness to fight.
“To keep Bagram, it would have been necessary to endanger up to 5,000 US troops, just to exploit and defend it,” Austin said. “And that would have done little for the mission given to us – and that was to protect and defend the Embassy, which was about 30 miles away.”
Republicans have said the troop withdrawal would allow Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to rebuild and use Afghanistan as a launching pad for future attacks against Americans and the homeland of the United States.
General McKenzie expressed reservations about whether the United States could prevent terrorist groups from developing this kind of refuge now that American troops had left the country.
“That remains to be seen,” General McKenzie said in response to a question. “We could come to this, but I don’t have that level of confidence yet.”
Mr. Biden pledged to prevent Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from rebuilding to the point where they could attack the Americans or the United States.
But General McKenzie’s response underscored how difficult that task will be and was a bit more pessimistic than the assessments of other senior Pentagon officials at the hearing.
General Milley said that a “reconstituted Al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility.” He added: “And these conditions, to include activity in ungoverned spaces, could arise in the next 12 to 36 months. “