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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4:03 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Key moments from today's Senate hearing on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan 

(Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times/Pool/AP)
(Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times/Pool/AP)

The public portion of the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has wrapped. Today's hearing marked the first time President Biden's top military leaders testified publicly since the full withdrawal took place.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Frank McKenzie, leader of US Central Command, were grilled on the chaotic withdrawal. If you're just reading in now, here are some key moments:

  • Defense secretary reflects on the 20-year war: In his opening remarks, Austin discussed the entire 20-year war, asking frankly if the US had the right strategy and 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 helped build a state...but we could not forge a nation," he told lawmakers.
  • Milley says he clearly warned Biden and Trump that a quick withdrawal could lead to Afghan government collapse: 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 said 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. "My assessment remained consistent throughout," he said.
  • Milley defended calls to China during Trump administration: At the end of his opening remarks about Afghanistan, the general 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."
  • Doha Agreement impacted morale and performance of Afghan forces, according to Milley and McKenzie: The 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. McKenzie told lawmakers Tuesday, “it’s my judgment 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.”
  • Defense secretary says US "certainly did not plan against a collapse" of the Afghan government in 11 days: Austin was asked 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," and noted that they did not plan against the possibility of the Afghan government collapse happening as quickly as it did. "We certainly did not plan against a collapse of the government in 11 days," Austin told lawmakers.
  • US CENTCOM head says he takes responsibility for drone strike that targeted wrong vehicle: McKenzie told Congress 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," he said. McKenzie previously called the strike, which killed seven children, a "mistake."
  • Military leaders' testimony on Afghanistan troop levels appears to conflict with Biden's statements: Milley and 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. 

Read more about today's hearing here.

3:35 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Austin: An "international effort" will be needed to pressure Taliban on upholding women's rights

(Patrick Semansky/Pool/AP)
(Patrick Semansky/Pool/AP)

Asked what concrete steps the US can take to influence the future of Afghan women and girl's that honors their human rights and freedoms, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin acknowledged that the Taliban's track record is "absolutely horrible."

"We will have to continue to — we will have to work to use economic levers and also international pressure to hold the Taliban accountable for some of the things that they said they were going to do. Again, I think this will have to be an international effort to maintain pressure on Taliban," Austin said in response to a question from Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii.

Some more context: The Taliban — who ruled over Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, but were forced from power after a US-led invasion — have historically treated women as second-class citizens, subjecting them to violence, forced marriages and a near-invisible presence in the country.

After they reclaimed the capital, Kabul, in August, the Taliban's leadership claimed that it would not enforce such draconian conditions this time in power.

But those promises have not materialized. The absence any female representatives from their newly-formed interim government and an almost overnight disappearance of women from the country's streets has led to major worries about what will happen next for half of its population.

Militants have in some instances ordered women to leave their workplaces, and when a group of women protested the announcement of the all-male government in Kabul, Taliban fighters beat them with whips and sticks.

On Monday, the school's new Taliban-appointed chancellor announced women will no longer be allowed to attend classes or work at Kabul University "until an Islamic environment is created."

CNN's Karen Smith and Tara John contributed reporting to this post.

3:29 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Milley: Whether evacuation of citizens should have been ordered sooner "needs further exploration"

From CNN's Ellie Kaufman

(Patrick Semansky/Pool/AP)
(Patrick Semansky/Pool/AP)

Whether or not the non-combatant evacuation, or NEO, of American citizens and Afghans should have been ordered sooner is an “open question that needs further exploration,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Senate hearing about the Afghanistan withdrawal on Tuesday.

Milley said the NEO was not ordered until Aug. 14. The State Department is responsible for making the order to start the non-combatant evacuation, and Amb. Ross Wilson, the top US diplomat in Afghanistan at the time of the withdrawal, did not order the NEO until Aug. 14, Milley said, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had already started “pushing for forces and orders,” on Aug. 12.

“The secretary in fact on the 12th of August started pushing for forces and orders, and on the 14th Amb. Wilson called the NEO. Should that have been called earlier? I think that’s an open question that needs further exploration based on a series of meetings,” Milley said.

Milley stressed the 2,500 troops that were withdrawn under Gen. Scott Miller, the top general in Afghanistan through the end of the US military retrograde in mid-July, were not troops that could have conducted the NEO in the first place. They were advisers, he said.

“The NEO troops are Marine Expeditionary Units, Special Purpose MAGTAF and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, that’s what you need in order to do the NEO. Those are the plans that I believe the secretary is referring to that were developed early on,” Milley said.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top general of US Central Command which oversees the Middle East region, had plans for the NEO, and those plans were executed after Wilson called for the evacuation on Aug. 14. 

“There was a plan for a rapid collapse, and that was the NEO plan that Gen. McKenzie had come up with, and that was executed, that’s why those 6,000 troops could deploy as rapidly as they did. That’s why all those aircrafts showed up, that wasn’t done without planning, that was done with planning,” Milley said. 

Milley said this reinforces his point that the NEO mission was a logistical success, but there was a strategic failure. 

“Strategically, strategically the war is lost, the enemy is in Kabul. So you have a strategic failure while you simultaneously have an operational and tactical success by the soldiers on the ground. So I think we’re conflating some things,” he said.

4:03 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

White House won't say which military advisers recommended a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan

From CNN's Jason Hoffman


White House press secretary Jen Psaki would not say which military advisers suggested a full US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, attempting to clarify that President Biden didn’t go against advice from advisers by ordering a full US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Psaki’s comments come after comments the leader of US Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, made during congressional testimony on Tuesday discussing the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

McKenzie said that he recommended the US keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, a recommendation Gen. Mark Milley said he agreed with. The testimony appears to contradict President Joe Biden's claim to the contrary during an interview last month.

"I also had a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces, and eventually the Afghan government," McKenzie said.

Psaki said there was a “range of viewpoints” presented to the President from his military advisers on how to proceed in Afghanistan, but even those advisers who did suggest keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan in the short-term recognized that would not have been a long-term strategy as keeping troops would have let to increased conflict in the country.

“I would note today in the testimony that was given by Secretary Austin, by General Milley, they made clear, Secretary Austin specifically said, if you stay there at a force posture of 2,500, certainly you'd be in a fight with the Taliban, and you'd have to reinforce,” Psaki said at Tuesday’s White House press briefing. 

“It was also clear, and clear to him, that that would not be a long standing recommendation, that there would need to be an escalation, an increase in troop numbers, it would also need, it would also mean war with the Taliban and it would also mean the potential loss of casualties. The President was just not willing to make that decision. He didn't think it was in our, the interest of the American people or the interests of, of our troops,” she continued.

Pressed on who specifically suggested that a full withdrawal was the right move, Pskai said those were private conversations and would not name any military leader who advised the President towards a full withdrawal.

“Look, I'm not going to get into specific details of who recommended what, but I can, I would reiterate a little bit of what I conveyed before, which is that there were recommendations made by a range of his advisors, something he welcomed, something he asked them to come to him clear eyed about to give him candid advice,” she said, again reiterating that those recommendations would not be sustainable long term troop numbers.

“There was no one who said, five years from now we could have 2,500 troops and that would be sustainable. And I think that's important for people to know and to understand,” Psaki said.

The press secretary said the conversation at the time was part of a risk assessment, but ultimately it is up to the President to make strategic decisions and Biden decided it was time to end America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan.

“These conversations are about a range of options, about what the, the risk assessments are about every decision. And of course, there are individuals who come forward with a range of recommendations on what the right path forward looks like. I'm not going to detail those from here, they're private conversations and advice to the President of the United States. Ultimately, regardless of the advice, it's his decision. He's the Commander in Chief,” Psaki said.

2:36 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

Defense secretary: 21 American citizens and their families were evacuated from Afghanistan today


Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked by Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, what his "best estimate" is on how many Americans remain in Afghanistan.

Austin said, "according to [the State Department], there are currently fewer than 100 American citizens who want to depart and are ready to leave."

He added that 21 American citizens were evacuated today, along with their family members, and are continuing to work on getting people out. Austin did not provide details or the circumstances of how the 21 Americans got out.

Austin could not provide an exact number of how many Americans are left in Afghanistan saying the number “fluctuates daily.”

"The numbers fluctuate daily, and because more people come to light as time, time goes by and they see opportunities to safely leave, and so this has been a dynamic process, but again we will stay focused on this," he said.

State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter told reporters the State Department was not in a position to confirm additional departures due to “security reasons” and referred back to the Department of Defense.

CNN's Ellie Kaufman, Christian Sierra and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting to this post.

1:41 p.m. ET, September 28, 2021

The hearing has resumed


The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has resumed after a lunch break.

President Biden's top military leaders will now face a second round of questioning.

The witnesses are:

  • Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley 
  • Leader of US Central Command Gen. Frank McKenzie

Today's hearing marks the first time the military leaders are testifying publicly since the full withdrawal took place.

Read more about today's hearing here.

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.