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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1:35 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Top military officials predict Taliban-Pakistan relationship will become more complicated

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Christian Sierra

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the leader of US Central Command, and Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said they predict the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban will become more complicated now that the latter is in control of Afghanistan.

“I believe Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban is going to become significantly more complicated as a result of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan,” McKenzie told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

McKenzie said there are ongoing deliberations with Pakistan over the use of a vital air corridor to access Afghanistan.

“Over the last 20 years we've been able to use what we call the air boulevard to go in over western Pakistan and that's become something that’s vital to us, as well as certain landlines of communication, and we'll be working with the Pakistanis in the days and weeks ahead to look at what that relationship is going to look like in the future,” he said.

Both Milley and McKenzie declined to discuss whether they have concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the potential that they could fall into the hands of terrorists, noting there were a series of things they could talk about in Tuesday afternoon’s closed session. 

McKenzie said it was “yet to be seen” whether terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS will use Afghanistan as a launchpad.

“We're still seeing how al Qaeda and ISIS are configuring themselves against the Taliban, we're still seeing what the Taliban is going to do, so I think it's, I would not say I'm confident that that's going to be on the ground yet, we could get to that point but I do not yet have that level of confidence,” he said.

12:51 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

US CENTCOM head says he takes responsibility for drone strike that killed Afghan civilians

From CNN's Adrienne Vogt

(Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Pool/Getty Images)
(Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Pool/Getty Images)

Gen. Kenneth Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said he takes full responsibility for the drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians in August.

"The matter is under investigation, but what I can tell you broadly, and to restate some things that I've said earlier, I am responsible for that. It happened in my area of responsibility, so I'm the responsible officer for that strike," McKenzie said during a Senate hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal.  

McKenzie previously called the strike, which killed seven children, a "mistake."

"Moreover, I was under no pressure and no one in my chain of command below me was under any pressure to take that strike. We acted based on the intelligence read that we saw on ground. We acted several times on intelligence that we saw, and we were successful in other occasions in preventing attacks," he told lawmakers.

"This time, tragically, we were wrong, and you're right to note that as we go forward and our ability to create what we call the ecosystem that allows you to see what's going on the ground and put all of that together, it's going to get a lot harder to do that, particularly in places like Afghanistan, but I can share a little more with you later," he said.

A closed session will follow today's open hearing.

12:41 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

US general says it's "yet to be seen" if they can stop terrorists from using Afghanistan as a launchpad

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, US CENTCOM commander, said it is "yet to be seen" if the US can deny organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS the ability to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for terrorist activity.

"I think we're still seeing how al Qaeda and ISIS are configuring themselves against the Taliban. We're still seeing whether the Taliban is going to do, so I think — I would not say I'm confident that that's going to be on the ground yet," McKenzie said.

"We could get to that point but I do not have that level of confidence," he added.

12:35 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Milley says he spoke with several journalists for books about Trump administration but hasn't read them

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

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

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he spoke with several journalists including Bob Woodward, Carol Leonnig, Philip Rucker and Michael Bender for interviews that were included in different books about the Trump administration when asked by Sen. Marsha Blackburn. Milley also said he had not read any of the books.

Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, asked Milley if he felt he was “accurately represented” in the books, and Milley responded, “I haven’t read any of the books.”

“I’ve seen press reporting of it. I haven’t read the books,” Milley said.

Blackburn asked Milley to read the books and “let us know if you are accurately presented and portrayed.” Milley said he would read them.

12:22 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Austin: "Three-star review" underway on strike that killed civilians

Relatives and neighbors inspect the remains of the US drone strike in a residential compound in Kabul on August 30.
Relatives and neighbors inspect the remains of the US drone strike in a residential compound in Kabul on August 30. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about the Aug. 29 drone strike by the US military in Afghanistan that killed multiple civilians.

Austin said he has not yet reached out to the aircrew that was operating that aircraft but that the incident is under a "three-star review" by the military.

"I've directed a three-star review of this incident, Gen. Mckenzie did an initial investigation, and I directed a three-star review and so I won't make any comments," he said.
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.