Top military leaders testify on Afghanistan withdrawal

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Mahtani, Melissa Macaya, Veronica Rocha and Mike Hayes, CNN

Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT) September 29, 2021
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2:09 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

20-year Afghanistan war "wasn’t lost in the last twenty days or even twenty months," Milley says 

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war in Afghanistan, which spanned 20 years, “wasn’t lost in the last twenty days or even twenty months for that matter,” during a congressional hearing about the US withdrawal from the country on Tuesday. 

“There's a whole series of decisions that take place over twenty years. I don't think that whenever you get some phenomena like a war that is lost, and it has been in the sense of we accomplished our strategic task of protecting America against al Qaeda, but certainly the end state is a whole lot different than what we wanted,” Milley said.

Milley said there are “an awful lot of causal factors” to why the war in Afghanistan ended the way it did, and “we’re gonna have to figure that out.” 

“A lot of lessons learned here,” he added.


11:39 a.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Milley: Intel that led to his China call during Trump administration was in President's daily briefing

From CNN's Michael Conte

(Rod Lamkey/Pool/Getty Images)
(Rod Lamkey/Pool/Getty Images)

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers that the intelligence that led to then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper directing Milley to call his Chinese counterpart in the final days of the Trump administration to assure him that the US was not preparing to attack China had been disseminated across the highest levels of the administration, including in the President’s daily intelligence briefing.

“I guarantee that that intelligence was disseminated in the President's PDB, the Vice President, the DNI, Director of CIA, the Secretary of Defense, the Assistant to the President for national security affairs, and others,” said Milley at a hearing on Afghanistan with the House Armed Services Committee. “That was significant, and there was a lot of it. It wasn't just a singular report.”

Milley was responding to an accusation by GOP Rep. Michael Turner that he had not made Esper aware of the call until after it had happened.

“You chose to talk to reporters instead of us, and that's of great concern,” said Turner. “No one in Congress knew that one of two of the major nuclear powers thought that they were perhaps being threatened for attack.”

Turner asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin if he learned of such intelligence whether he would “elevate that to the Cabinet and to Congress,” to which Austin replied that he would “follow standard protocol” and consider such actions.

Austin also defended Milley, saying, “what I heard him say yesterday and I think again today, is that his chain of command, the Secretary of Defense at the time was, was aware of the actions.” 

Milley said he would be “happy” to share the intelligence with Turner “and go over it with you line by line.”

“This is all done with oversight, and I tried to lay that out in the memoranda,” said Milley. “I tried to lay it out in a timeline in an unclassified way.”


11:52 a.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Decision to reduce number of troops in Afghanistan to 650 was made in "consultative process," Milley says

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman and Christian Sierra

(Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)
(Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that while his assessment was to maintain a presence of 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan, the decision to reduce the troop levels to 650 was made in “consultative process by the highest levels” of the government.

“I would say that the decision was made in a national security consultative process by the highest levels of our government,” Milley said.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top general of US Central Command, said his view was also to keep 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan, and his opinion did not change. 

“My view was that we needed to maintain about 2,500, and that we also needed to work with our coalition partners who had about 6,000 troops in there, NATO and other core countries that would, that would remain there,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie later in the hearing said that 2,500 service members was the minimum number that would've been needed to retain Bagram Air Base.

"It has been my view that I recommended a level of 2,500, a level that would have allowed us to hold Bagram and other airfields as well. Once you go below that level and make a decision to go to zero, it is no longer feasible to hold Bagram," he said.

11:12 a.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Milley: Trump signed order for US troop Afghanistan withdrawal by Jan. 15, 2021 that was later rescinded

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman:

Former President Trump signed an order that would have had US troops withdraw from Somalia by Dec. 31, 2020 and US troops withdraw from Afghanistan by Jan. 15, 2021. The order was later rescinded, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. 

The order had “two lines,” Milley said. “Line one was withdrawal force, US military forces from Somalia by 31 December, second sentence was withdraw US military forces from Afghanistan by 15 January."

Milley went to the White House and “had some conversations with some folks, not the President,” after the order was signed, he said. 

“We discussed the cost risk benefit, etc. and the feasibility, acceptability, and suitability of that order,” he added. 


11:10 a.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Defense secretary says there was "no risk-free status quo option" for staying in Afghanistan

(Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)
(Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)

Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to talk about the advice that was provided to President Biden on Afghanistan prior to the US withdrawal.

Austin said that while he will always keep his recommendations to the President confidential, he could say that there was "no risk-free status quo option."

"I think that the Taliban had been clear if we stayed there longer, they were going to recommence attacks on our forces. I think while it's conceivable that you could stay there, my view is that you would have had to deploy more forces in order to protect ourselves and accomplish any missions we would have been assigned." 

2:16 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Milley says late-August assessment was staying past Aug. 31 would come at "extraordinarily high" cost

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

Gen. Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs Chairman, said it was the unanimous view of the Joint Chiefs and key commanders in late-August that US forces should be out by Aug. 31 and that saying longer, while "military feasible," would only come at an "extraordinarily high" cost, according to his written testimony provided as obtained by CNN on Wednesday.  

Milley did not deliver the comments on camera.

Milley said he was asked on Aug. 25, at the peak of the evacuation, for his "best military advice" on whether the US could maintain a military presence in Afghanistan past the end of the month.

The advice from Milley and the Pentagon's top commanders was "unanimous," Milley said. Staying past the end of the month posed a tremendous risk to US troops and citizens. 

"In addition to US casualties, we assessed the risk to remaining US citizens would increase significantly. And finally we assessed there was no guarantee of getting out the remaining American citizens safely, nor was there a reasonable prospect of an end state in an achievable amount of time," Milley said.

"Therefore, we unanimously recommended that the military mission be transitioned on 31 August to a diplomatic mission in order to get out the remaining American citizens. That mission is still ongoing," he continued.

10:55 a.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Head of US Central Command says "Bagram option went away" once military numbers were reduced 

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

(Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)
(Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images)

The commander of the United States Central Command, Gen. Kenneth Frank McKenzie, said “it was not feasible” to hold onto the US Embassy in Kabul, Hamid Karzai International Airport and the sprawling Bagram Air Base with the number of service members left in Afghanistan. 

"The guidance I received in April was to conduct the complete withdrawal of US combat forces and plan for a diplomatic security force of absolutely no more than 650 service members. It was not feasible to preserve the US Embassy in Kabul, hold and defend Hamid Karzai International Airport, the embassy’s key link to the outside world, and also defend Bagram Airfield with 650 soldiers and Marines. This is important — the Bagram option went away when we were ordered to reduce our presence to the 650 personnel in Kabul," McKenzie said in front of the House of Representatives during a hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal. 

McKenzie said the military worked closely with allies and partners after President Biden in April announced his plans for full withdrawal of US troops by Sept. 11, 2021. 

"On no occasion were they caught unaware by our movements; every base was handed off to Afghan forces, according to a mutually understood plan," McKenzie said. 

McKenzie also addressed the evacuation operation that began in August. McKenzie said that officials planned to move a large number of people and tried to account for a "complete collapse" of Afghan security forces.

"We did not regard a Taliban takeover as inevitable but neither did we rule it out," he said.

McKenzie also reiterated his statement from yesterday's Senate hearing that he takes full responsibility for the drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians.

10:25 a.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Top US general warned rapid Afghanistan withdrawal could have risked security of Pakistan nukes

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley arrives on Capitol Hill on September 29.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley arrives on Capitol Hill on September 29. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The top US general warned that a rapid withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan would pose an increased risk to the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and would contribute to the rise of violent extremist organizations, according to General Mark Milley’s written testimony as obtained by CNN on Wednesday. 

Milley did not deliver the comments on camera.

Milley said his analysis in the fall of 2020 was that an unconditional withdrawal would endanger the gains made in Afghanistan and damage US credibility abroad, as well as increase the likelihood of a rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military.

"We estimated an accelerated withdrawal would increase risks of regional instability, the security of Pakistan and its nuclear arsenals, a global rise in violent extremist organizations, our global credibility with allies and partners would suffer, and a narrative of abandoning the Afghans would become widespread," Milley said. 

This was his analysis in his role as advisor to the President, the defense secretary, and the National Security Council, he added, and it did not change between the Trump administration and the Biden administration. 

A rapid withdrawal would also increase the potential for a "humanitarian catastrophe."

After the signing of the Doha agreement in 2020, which led to a sense of inevitable victory for the Taliban and a failure of morale for the Afghan military, the Tailban increased their level of violence.

"For the entirety of the 2020 fighting season, the Taliban maintained a consistently higher than average level of violence throughout the country," Milley said. Those attacks didn't target US forces, per the Doha agreement, but they carried out between 80 and 120 attacks against Afghan military each day on average.

"In 2020, Taliban violence against women, human rights defenders, journalists, and government officials continued, with almost 1,000 targeted killings attributed to the Taliban, up from 780 in 2019."

9:32 a.m. ET, September 29, 2021

NOW: Top military leaders testify on Afghanistan before House lawmakers

Members of the House Armed Services Committee will grill Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of the US Central Command, on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The top military leaders testified on Tuesday for the first time before Congress since the full withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

They defended the planning that preceded the chaotic evacuation from Kabul, but acknowledged that they did not expect the swift collapse of the Afghan government.

Today's hearing just kicked off.