Joint Chiefs chairman calls Afghan war a 'strategic failure'
The top U.S. military officer called the 20-year war in Afghanistan a “strategic failure” and acknowledged to Congress on Tuesday that he had favored keeping several thousand troops in the country to prevent a collapse of the U.S.-supported Kabul government and a rapid takeover by the Taliban.
Afghans watch a traditional wrestling match at the Chaman-e-Hozari Park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 17, 2021. [Photo: AP/Bernat Armangue]
Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee pointed to the testimony by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as evidence that President Joe Biden had been untruthful when, in a television interview last month, he suggested the military had not urged him to keep troops in Afghanistan.
Milley refused to say what advice he gave Biden last spring when Biden was considering whether to comply with an agreement the Trump administration had made with the Taliban to reduce the American troop presence to zero by May 2021, ending a U.S. war that began in October 2001. Testifying alongside Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also refused to reveal his advice to Biden.
Milley told the committee, when pressed, that it had been his personal opinion that at least 2,500 U.S. troops were needed to guard against a collapse of the Kabul government and a return to Taliban rule.
Defying U.S. intelligence assessments, the Afghan government and its U.S.-trained army collapsed in mid-August, allowing the Taliban, which had ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, to capture Kabul with what Milley described as a couple of hundred men on motorcycles, without a shot being fired. That triggered a frantic U.S. effort to evacuate American civilians, Afghan allies and others from Kabul airport.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command was overseeing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, said he shared Milley’s view that keeping a residual force there could have kept the Kabul government intact.
“I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and I also recommended early in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time, those were my personal views,” McKenzie said. “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.”
The six-hour Senate hearing marked the start of what is likely to be an extended congressional review of the U.S. failures in Afghanistan. The length and depth of the hearing stood in contrast to years of limited congressional oversight of the war and the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it consumed.
“The Republicans' sudden interest in Afghanistan is plain old politics,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, who supported Biden's decision to end U.S. involvement there.
Austin and Milley are scheduled to appear Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee to review the war.
The hearing at times was contentious, as Republicans sought to portray Biden as having ignored advice from military officers and mischaracterized the military options he was presented last spring and summer.
Several Republicans tried unsuccessfully to draw Milley, McKenzie and Austin into commenting on the truthfulness of Biden’s statement to ABC News on Aug. 18, three days after the Taliban took control of Kabul that no senior military commander had recommended against a full troop withdrawal when it was under discussion in the first months of Biden’s term.
When asked in that interview whether military advisers had recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, Biden replied, “No. No one said that to me that I can recall." He also said the advice “was split.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that Biden was referring to having received a range of advice.