Milley, military leaders contradict Biden on support for complete Afghanistan withdrawal

The end of America's 20-year war in Afghanistan was a "strategic failure," according to the assessment of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley. Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Gen. Frank McKenzie, who runs U.S. Central Command, all appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to discuss the withdrawal. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Strategic failure. That is the assessment of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, on the end of America's 20-year war in Afghanistan.

    Nevertheless, top commanders recommended to President Biden that the U.S. keep troops in Afghanistan. The president rejected that and the Americans and NATO allies withdrew on August 31.

    Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Frank McKenzie, who runs U.S. Central Command, all appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee today.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI):

    Let me call the hearing to order.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the Senate committee responsible for military oversight, the military's leaders today said that, earlier this year, after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, they advised it was not time to withdraw.

    Central Command Chief General Frank McKenzie.

  • Gen. Frank McKenzie, Commander, U.S. Central Command:

    My view is that 2, 500 was an appropriate number to remain, and that if we went below that number, we would probably witness the collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan military.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That refutes President Biden's August statement to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that the military supported the withdrawal.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: They didn't argue against that.

  • George Stephanopoulos, ABC News:

    So, no one told — your military advisers not tell you, no, we should just keep 2, 500 troops, it's been a stable situation for the last several years, we can do that, we can continue to do that?

  • Joe Biden:

    No, no one said that to me that I can recall.

  • Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK):

    Was that a false statement by the president of the United States? Remember, you do not have to duty to cover for a president when he is not telling the truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Republicans seized on the president's having rejected military advice.

  • Alaska’s Dan Sullivan:

  • Sen. Dan Sullivan:

    On the biggest national security fiasco in a generation, there has been zero accountability.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mississippi's Roger Wicker:

  • Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS):

    Our credibility has been gravely damaged, has it not, General Milley?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley:

    Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world and with adversaries is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go. And I think that damage is one word that could be used, yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And after two decades of war, more than 2,000 Americans killed, 20,000 Americans wounded, and the Taliban in control in Kabul for the first time, Milley admitted defeat.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    An outcome that is a strategic failure. The enemy is in charge of Kabul. There's no way else to describe that. That outcome is the cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The commanders defended the chaotic evacuation of more than 100,000 Afghans and Americans, and they said President Biden did take their advice on withdrawing by August 31, even though thousands who wanted to leave were left behind.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    If we stayed past the 31st, which, militarily, is feasible, but it would have required an additional commitment of significant amounts of forces, probably 18th Airborne Corps, 15,000, 20,000, maybe 25,000 troops, we would have had to reseize Bagram. We would have had to clear Kabul of the 6,000 Taliban that were already in Kabul.

    That's what would have had to have happened beginning on the 1st. And that would have resulted in significant casualties on the U.S. side, and it would have placed American citizens that are still there at greater risk.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the war's critics say that argument for rapid military escalation was the heart of the U.S.' strategic failure, and even Milley today agreed that, despite years of training, the Afghan military wouldn't have survived U.S. withdrawal, no matter the date.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    I think the end state probably would have been the same no matter when you did it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Indeed, senators and commanders revisited a series of fatal mistakes, creating the Afghan army dependent on the U.S., Afghan corruption, and U.S. failure to create strong Afghan institutions.

    Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin:

    Lloyd Austin, U.S. Secretary of Defense: Did we have too many strategies? Did we put too much faith in our ability to build effective Afghan institutions, an army, an air force, a police force, and government ministries?

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

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And wavering American commitment. Milley confirmed for the first time that President Trump tried to withdraw unconditionally late last year, months after the agreement signed in Doha with the Taliban that first promised U.S. withdrawal.

  • Gen. Frank McKenzie:

    The Taliban were heartened by what they saw happen at Doha and what followed and our eventual decision to get out by a certain date. I think the Afghans were very weakened by that morally and spiritually.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Separately, Milley defended his actions during the Trump-Biden transition, when he reassured his Chinese counterpart that the U.S. wasn't going to attack, and when he talked with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about nuclear procedures, and ensured with nuclear command staff he was part of the nuclear reporting process.

  • Gen. Mark Milley:

    At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself into the chain of command.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Moving forward, the military says the Taliban has not broken with al-Qaida, which could reconstitute within 12 months. But the military doesn't know if it can effectively target terrorists in a country where there are no service members.

  • Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly:

  • Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ):

    Are you confident, confident that we can deny organizations like al-Qaida and ISIS the ability to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for terrorist activity?

  • Gen. Frank McKenzie:

    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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's because today, as it was 20 years ago, Kabul has no American troops and is ruled by the Taliban.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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