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.