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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2:26 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Top US general outlined 4 key events in the planning around Afghanistan evacuation and withdrawal 

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

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

The House hearing on the US withdrawal in Afghanistan just wrapped.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and head of US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie were grilled on the House Armed Services Committee about the decisions they made before, during and after the evacuation effort in Kabul.

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

According to his written testimony as obtained by CNN on Wednesday, Milley detailed four key dates that went into the planning and execution of the Afghanistan evacuation and withdrawal. Milley did not deliver the comments on camera, but defended his action's in today's hearing, while acknowledging that the US military did not predict that the Afghan government would collapse so quickly.

The Biden administration has been criticized for not having plans ready to carry out the withdrawal of forces and the evacuation of US citizens and others. Milley pushed back on that criticism by laying out some of the key events in the planning around Afghanistan.

He referenced these four dates:

April 28: The top military leaders, including Milley, the Defense Secretary, the Joint Chiefs, the commander of US Central Command and others held an Afghanistan Retrograde Rehearsal within the Defense Department. This event focused on the withdrawal of US forces.

"The main purpose of this rehearsal was to ensure shared understanding of President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan and coordinate and synchronize the efforts of DoD, our allies, and partners," Milley said.

May 8: All relevant Cabinet members held an interagency table top exercise about the withdrawal of forces.

"This event covered a rehearsal of concept for the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and covered various branch plans and sequels. It was to ensure that the US Government, Interagency, and partners and allies had a shared vision of our withdrawal timeline, the plan itself, and to ensure it was synchronized."

June 11: One month later, the Joint Staff held a table top exercise for a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO), including senior officials from across the interagency. Officials looked at a series of "key milestones" for a NEO, as well as contingency in case of an embassy closure, intermediate staging base locations, and the process for sorting and screening evacuees.

Aug. 6: Senior government officials carried out another table top exercise to look at the possibility of a civilian evacuation under two different conditions: one where the surrounding environment posed some challenges to the evacuation and one where the surrounding environment made it incredibly difficult.

2:38 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Milley says he believes war in Afghanistan was at a "stalemate" five to six years ago

From CNN's Kaufman and Sarah Fortinsky

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believed the war in Afghanistan had reached a stalemate about five to six years ago during a House Armed Services hearing on Wednesday.

“I think if you go back to five, six years ago, I knew it was stalemated. Lost is a different word but I believed it was stalemated, and I believed, five or six years ago that it was unwinnable for US military means. For several reasons,” Milley said.

Milley said he didn’t believe there was a “military solution” to the war in Afghanistan as of five to six years ago, but instead thought a negotiated settlement was the best option.

“But I knew years ago that it was stalemated, said that repeatedly, internal and external, and that winning would be defined as a negotiated solution, as most insurgencies are historically. They result in a negotiated solution between the insurgent and the regime. And I thought that was the best way that this could handle. I didn't think there was military solution,” Milley said.

2:41 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Rep. Liz Cheney apologizes for Republicans who questioned Gen. Milley’s loyalty to US Constitution

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman and Core James

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

Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, apologized for members of the Republican party who have questioned Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Cheney referenced the insurrection on the Capitol on Jan. 6, calling it an “effort to stop the constitutionally prescribed process of counting electoral votes.”

She said it was “the first time in our nation’s history that we did not have a peaceful transfer of power.” 

“General Milley you found yourself in your constitutionally prescribed role, standing in the breach. And for any member of this committee for any American to question your loyalty to our nation to question your understanding of our Constitution, your loyalty to our Constitution, your recognition and understanding of the civilian chain of command is despicable,” Cheney said.

“I want to apologize for those members of this committee,” she added.

Watch the moment:

2:52 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Milley says he was not consulted on Trump's November order to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told lawmakers Wednesday he was not consulted on President Trump’s Nov. 11 order to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan by mid-January. 

“I wasn’t consulted on the 11 November order that I received,” Milley said, noting he went to the White House with Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller and Kash Patel “to discuss that order.”

Asked if he had been consulted on the Trump administration’s decision “to open negotiations solely with the Taliban to the exclusion of the Afghan government,” Milley said he was told “very, very late in the game,” just days before the signing of the Doha Agreement.

Milley said he “dutifully executed” the drawdown plans outlined in that agreement.

He and the head of the US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee that they developed plans for non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) but those plans did not initially account for large-scale evacuations of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders.

“We had a plan to bring out mainly American citizens and people associated with the embassy. Planning later began to encompass the larger population, the at-risk Afghan population, the SIV population. But initially, to like every other plan, it’s centered on American citizens and their families,” McKenzie said.

He said planning for evacuated the larger population began “no later than early spring of this year.”

1:28 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Top military officials say they knew civilians were killed in US drone strike hours after it occurred

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and the top general of US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie all said they knew that civilians had been killed in a US drone strike in Kabul hours after the strike occurred and it was days later when they knew the strike was an error. 

Since the strike, the US military acknowledged that the strike did not hit an ISIS target but targeted civilians, killing ten people, including seven children. The strike took place on Aug. 29 in Kabul. 

McKenzie said they did not know the strike was an “error” until a few days later, but they did know civilians were killed a few hours after the strike. 

“Well, so, we knew the strike hit civilians within four or five hours after the strike occurred. And US central command released a press release saying that. We did not know the target of the strike was an error, a mistake until some days later, but we knew pretty soon,” McKenzie said. 


1:13 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Milley says he doesn't regret speaking to Woodward, says he has done his "best to remain" apolitical

From CNN's Michael Conte

(Olivier Douliery/Pool/AP)
(Olivier Douliery/Pool/AP)

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said that he is “concerned” that Bob Woodward’s book may mischaracterize him as being willing to “become politicized,” a characterization he disputes. 

“I have done my best to remain personally apolitical, and to try to keep the military out of actual domestic politics, and I made a point of that from the time I became the chairman and especially beginning last summer,” Milley said at a House Armed Services hearing on Afghanistan.

Asked by GOP Rep. Jim Banks if he regretted speaking to Woodward, Milley said he did not.

“I think that it’s important for me to speak to the media,” he said. “I am trying to stay apolitical, and I believe I am.”


12:56 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

"Many" Taliban prisoners released under Doha agreement rejoined the Taliban, Secretary of Defense says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin indicated that the Doha agreement allowed the Taliban to gain strength, telling House lawmakers that “many” Taliban prisoners, who were released by the Afghan government as a condition of the deal, went back to join the ranks of the militant group.

“As a part of that agreement, we agreed to cease conducting air operations against the Taliban. So the Taliban got stronger. They increased their offensive operations against the Afghan security forces. And the Afghans were losing a lot of people on a weekly basis,” he said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

“In addition to that, we caused them to release 5,000 prisoners and those prisoners, many of those prisoners, went back to fill the ranks of the Taliban. So they got a lot stronger, they continued their attacks, we got smaller,” he said. 

According to the text of the Feb. 2020 agreement, which was not signed by the Afghan government, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and up to 1,000 "prisoners of the other side will be released by March 10, 2020, the first day of intra-Afghan negotiations."

In the months following the deal, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad repeatedly pressed for the sides to release the prisoners as a means to pave the way toward the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Aug. 2020, “We acknowledge that the release of these prisoners is unpopular. But this difficult action will lead to an important result long sought by Afghans and Afghanistan’s friends: reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war.”

“After 40 years of war and bloodshed and destruction, the parties are ready to embark on a political process to reach a negotiated settlement,” he said.  

12:03 p.m. ET, September 29, 2021

Top US general: "Real possibility" al Qaeda or ISIS could reconstitute in next 6-36 months in Afghanistan

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra

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

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Wednesday there is “a real possibility” that al Qaeda or ISIS could reconstitute in Afghanistan in the next six to 36 months.

Milley said that “right this minute” the terrorist threat from Afghanistan is smaller than it was on 9/11, but that “the conditions could be set for a reconstitution of al Qaeda and/or ISIS.”

“It's a real possibility in the not too distant future, 6, 12, 18, 24, 36 months that kind of timeframe for reconstitution of al Qaeda or ISIS and it's our job now, you know, under different conditions, but it's our job to continue to protect the American citizens against attacks from Afghanistan,” he told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin concurred with that assessment.

“Al Qaeda has been degraded over time. Now, terrorist organizations seek ungoverned spaces so that they can train and equip and thrive and, and so, there, there is clearly a possibility that that can happen here, going forward,” he said.

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.