Top military leaders testify on Afghanistan for first time since withdrawal

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

Updated 4:03 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021
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11:58 a.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Top US general calls Afghanistan troop withdrawal a "logistical success, but a strategic failure"

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the non-combatant evacuation mission at the end of August that resulted in over 100,000 people being evacuated from Afghanistan after the capital city of Kabul fell to the Taliban was a “logistical success, but a strategic failure.”

Milley stressed the evacuation of US citizens, other country’s citizens and Afghans from Kabul last month was a “non-combatant evacuation (NEO),” while the actual process of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan occurred earlier under the direction of Gen. Austin Miller, the former top general in Afghanistan.

Milley called the withdrawal of US troops under Miller’s direction a “retrograde,” and said it was completed by “mid-July.” The NEO was conducted in August after Kabul fell to the Taliban.

“There’s two operations. There’s the retrograde, which Miller was in charge of, and there’s the NEO, which CENTCOM was in charge of. The retrograde was executed and ended by mid-July with a residual force to defend the embassy, the NEO,” Milley said.

12:02 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Military leaders' testimony on Afghanistan troop levels appears to conflict with Biden's statements

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler, Christian Sierra and Hannah Sarisohn

President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House on August 26.
President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House on August 26. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and United States Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie said their assessments that the US should maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan were their personal opinions, telling lawmakers they would not discuss their specific recommendations to President Biden. 

Earlier comments from Milley and McKenzie seemed to contradict remarks Biden made in an interview in mid-August, where he disputed that military advisers told him that he should keep troops in Afghanistan after the withdrawal deadline. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also told lawmakers that he knows Biden “to be an honest and forthright man.”

“Their input was received by the President and considered by the President, for sure. In terms of what they specifically recommended ... they're not going to provide what they recommended in confidence,” Austin said.

Milley told lawmakers that his assessment in fall 2020, which “remained consistent throughout,” was that the US should “keep a steady state” of 2,500 troops.

“I don’t discuss exactly what my conversations are with the sitting President in the Oval Office, but I can tell you what my personal opinion was, and I’m always candid,” he said.

Milley added that at a meeting of top military officials on Aug. 25, they “made a unanimous recommendation that we end the military mission and transition to a diplomatic mission.”


11:33 a.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Defense secretary: "We certainly did not plan against a collapse" of the Afghan government in 11 days

(Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
(Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about "potential scenarios" that were discussed regarding what would happen in Afghanistan after the US pulled out. He said they discussed "a range of possibilities." 

"The entire collapse of the Afghan government was clearly one of the things that, if you look at the intel estimates and some of the estimates that others had made, that could happen," he said.

He added that they did not plan against the possibility of that collapse happening as quickly as it did.

"We certainly did not plan against a collapse of the government in 11 days," Austin said.


11:49 a.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Memos from Milley show timeline of communications between Trump's Defense Department and Chinese officials

From CNN's Zachary Cohen and Ellie Kaufman

(Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Pool/AP)
(Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Pool/AP)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley submitted two unclassified memos to the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding phone calls he had with his Chinese counterpart during the final months of the Trump administration.

Here's what the memos outline:

  • One of the memos includes a timeline of events regarding when calls between Trump administration Department of Defense officials and Chinese officials took place from November 2019 to January 2021.
  • The timeline shows Milley talked with General Li in December 2019 and April 2020 as well as the October 2020 and January 2021 calls that had previously been reported.  
  • The January 8 calls between Milley and General Li and Milley and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were first reported in the book Peril from journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Milley has faced criticism for the calls.
  • The other memo submitted to Congress provides background information about Milley’s call with Speaker Pelosi on January 8, two days after the insurrection on Capitol Hill. The memo says that Milley “immediately informed” then-Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller about his call with Pelosi. The memo says Pelosi asked for an “immediate phone call to discuss undefined ‘urgent matters,’” with Milley on the morning of Jan. 8. During the call, Pelosi was “concerned and made various personal references characterizing the President,” the memo said.

“I explained to her that the President is the sole nuclear launch and he doesn’t launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the President of the United States,” Milley said in his opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

“At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself into the chain of command, but I am expected to give my advice and ensure the President is fully informed,” Milley said in the memo. 

The memo with the timeline of calls between Chinese officials and DoD officials also provides relevant statutory guidance about the Chairman’s role in advising the President of the United States.

“Communication between the President or the Secretary (or their duly deputized alternates or successors) and the CCDRs ‘will be transmitted through the Chairman unless otherwise directed,’” the memo states.

See the memos submitted by Milley here and here.

11:46 a.m. ET, September 28, 2021

"I'm not going to resign, there's no way," Milley says

From CNN's Aditi Sangal

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley told Republican Sen. Tom Cotton "there's no way" he would resign after US withdrawal from Afghanistan led to chaos and his recommendations to President Biden on the matter were rejected.

"As a senior military officer, resigning is a really serious thing. It's a political act if I'm resigning in protest. My job is to provide advice," he told Congress. "The President doesn't have to agree with that advice. He doesn't have to make those decisions just because we're generals. It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken."

Additionally, Milley said he feels a sense of duty toward his troops.

"In addition to that, just from a personal standpoint, you know, my dad didn't get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima, and those kids there at Abbey Gate, they don't get a choice to resign. And I'm not gonna turn my back on them...They can't resign, so I'm not going to resign. There's no way."

"If the orders are illegal, we're in a different place. But if the orders are legal from civilian authority, I intend to carry them out," he added.

1:18 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Doha Agreement impacted morale and performance of Afghan forces, top military officials say

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Top military commanders said the Doha Agreement between the US and Taliban inked under the Trump administration negatively impacted the morale and performance of the Afghan security forces.

US officials said the quick collapse under the advance of the Taliban came as a surprise. 

However, CENTCOM Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie told lawmakers Tuesday, “it’s my judgement that the Doha Agreement did negatively affect the performance of the Afghan forces in particular by some of the actions the government of Afghanistan was required to take as part of that agreement.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said it was his assessment that the Doha deal “did affect the morale of the Afghan security forces.”

McKenzie also indicated the removal of US military contractors who supported the Afghan Air Force was also detrimental.

“We had plans in place to try to conduct those operations from over the horizon, they were not as effective as having contractors on the ground, on site, with the aircraft,” he said.

1:14 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

US "absolutely missed" the swift collapse of Afghan government and military, Milley says

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said "we absolutely missed" the quick collapse of the Afghan military and government.

"We absolutely missed the rapid 11-day collapse of the Afghan military and the collapse of their government. I think there was a lot of intelligence that clearly indicated that after we withdrew, that it was a likely outcome of a collapse of the military, a collapse of the government," Milley said in response to a question from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, at a Senate hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal.

"Most of those intelligence assessments indicated that would occur late fall, perhaps early winter, Kabul might hold till next spring," Milley continued.

"While we were there, though, up through 31 August, there's no intel assessment that says the government is going to collapse and the military is going to collapse in 11 days that I'm aware of," he added.

Milley said US military didn't have the "full, wholesome assessment of leadership, morale, and will" among Afghan forces.  

"Many units did fight at the very end. But the vast majority put their weapons down and melted away in a very, very short period of time. I think that has do with will, leadership, and I think we still need to try to figure out exactly why that was. And I have some suggestions, but I'm not settled on them yet. But we clearly missed that," he said.

"... We pulled our advisers off three years ago. When you pull advisers out of units, you can no longer assess things like leadership and will. ... You can't measure the human heart with a machine; you've got to be there," he said.

10:47 a.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Defense Secretary: US credibility with our allies "remains solid"

(Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images)
(Sarahbeth Maney/Pool/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked about the message that America's withdrawal from Afghanistan sends to NATO allies and other allies around the world about the US's credibility.

"As I engage my counterparts, I think our credibility remains solid," he said

He added: "[There] will be people who question things going forward, but I would say that, you know, the United States military is one that – and the United States of America, people place great trust and confidence in. And relationships are things we have to work on continuously. We understand that and we'll continue to do that."


10:56 a.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Gen. Milley defends calls to China during Trump administration 

 (Patrick Semansky/Pool/Getty Images)
 (Patrick Semansky/Pool/Getty Images)

At the end of his remarks about Afghanistan, Gen. Mark Milley turned to calls he held in January and last October with his Chinese counterpart. He told lawmakers key Trump leaders and military officials were aware of the calls.

These calls have become a lightning rod for partisan criticism, with some Republicans calling for Milley's resignation or firing. Milley said the calls were part of routine communications "with the knowledge and coordination of civilian oversight."

"I am specifically directed to communicate with the Chinese by Department of Defense guidance," he said. 

Eight people sat in on the October call between Milley and his Chinese counterpart, while 11 people sat in on the January call, Milley said. The calls were coordinated with then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and then-Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller.

"I personally informed both Secretary of State Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Meadows about the call among other topics. Soon after that, I attended a meeting with Acting [Defense] Secretary Miller, where I briefed him on the call," Milley said of the January call.

Milley continued: "These military-to-military communications at the highest level are critical to the security of the United States in order to deconflict military actions, manage crises, and prevent war between great powers that are armed with the world's most deadliest weapons." 

He said that the calls were coordinated after the US Defense Department learned of specific intelligence "which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States." 

"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," Milley said.

He said that his task at the time was to "de-escalate" and that his message was consistent: "Stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you."