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
17 Posts
Sort byDropdown arrow
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."

1:16 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Top US general: It's "clear" that war in Afghanistan "did not end on the terms we wanted"

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said it is "clear" that the Afghanistan war did not end in the way intended.

"It is clear — it is obvious — the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted with the Taliban now in power in Kabul," Milley told lawmakers during a Senate hearing on the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Milley said that the threat of an attack from terrorist groups remains "a very real possibility."

"We must remember that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization, and they still have not broken ties with Al Qaeda. I have no illusions who we are dealing with," Milley said. "It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will further fracture into civil war. But we must continue to protect the United States of America and its people from terrorist attacks coming from Afghanistan. A reconstituted Al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility."

Watch the moment:

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

Milley says he clearly warned Biden and Trump that quick withdrawal could lead to Afghan government collapse

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

From left, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Leader of US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie testify on Tuesday.
From left, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Leader of US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie testify on Tuesday. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley made clear in his opening statement of the warnings that military leaders, including himself, gave the Trump and Biden administrations.

A quick withdrawal, Milley says he told the White House in fall 2020, could lead to a collapse of the Afghan government and military, leading to a complete Taliban takeover.

Of the seven conditions placed on the Taliban in the Doha Agreement, signed in early 2020 between the Taliban and the Trump administration, only one was followed. The Taliban never attacked US forces following the agreement, but "failed to fully honor any other commitments," Milley said.

"In the fall of 2020, my analysis was that an accelerated withdrawal without meeting specific and necessary conditions risks losing the substantial gains made in Afghanistan, damaging US worldwide credibility, and could precipitate a general collapse of the Afghan government, resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war," Milley told lawmakers.

"My assessment remained consistent throughout," he continued.

Milley said the Biden administration listened to the views of military leaders, giving them "serious consideration," but Biden pushed forward with the withdrawal of all but 650 troops, which should have been required to secure the embassy in Kabul and Hamid Karzai airport. 

Milley was blunt in his assessment of the future of Afghanistan under Taliban rule. "A reconstituted al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility," Milley warned. "And those conditions ... could present themselves in the next 12 to 36 months." 

10:19 a.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Defense secretary reflects on the 20-year war: "We helped build a state...but we could not forge a nation"

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

As he neared the end of his opening remarks, Defense Secretary Austin shifted his focus to the entire 20-year war, asking frankly if the US had the right strategy, if it believed falsely that it could build an Afghan government that would last and if it could create a self-sustaining Afghan military.

Austin admitted that the US never understood the problems on the ground in Afghanistan, including endemic corruption that undermined and delegitimized the exact government the US was supporting.

"We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we didn't anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement, and that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers. And finally, that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which – and for whom – many of the Afghan forces would fight."

The collapse of the Afghan army in the face of a Taliban offensive "took us all by surprise," Austin said.

"We helped build a state, Mr. Chairman, but we could not forge a nation," he added.

CNN's Oren Liebermann contributed reporting to this post.