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Five takeaways from the Senate's hearing on Afghanistan

Top Pentagon officials took a grilling Tuesday over the Biden administration’s handling of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and U.S. Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie fielded questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee that covered everything from the frenetic evacuation out of Kabul’s airport, to those left behind, to the likelihood of terrorist groups once again gaining a foothold in the country with U.S. forces gone.

Milley also spent time defending phone calls he made to his Chinese counterpart in the waning days of the Trump administration that have generated widespread GOP criticism.

The Defense leaders admitted to faults in the Trump and Biden administrations’ process for pulling troops from the country beginning last year, with Milley calling the evacuation a “logistical success, but a strategic failure,” but maintained that the Pentagon had prepared for the messy withdrawal.

Here are five takeaways from the hearing.

New questions on what troop advice Biden got

President Biden faces fresh questions after both McKenzie and Milley disclosed that they recommended the U.S. leave 2,500 troops in Afghanistan earlier this year as Biden was debating the withdrawal.

Their public comments conflicted with those Biden made to ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos in an interview last month. Biden said at the time he didn’t recall top generals recommending he keep 2,500 troops in the country and that his advisers were “split” on their recommendations.

Both Milley and McKenzie declined to detail their direct conversations with Biden, but their testimony indicated he was aware of the recommendation, which was also shared by Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, who served as the final commander of NATO's Resolute Support Mission and U.S. Forces - Afghanistan.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday defended Biden and said, without getting into specifics, that he received diverse recommendations from advisers. Psaki also said the risks associated with remaining in Afghanistan — war with the Taliban and more U.S. casualties — were too high for Biden and that the U.S. would have had to surge more troops to the country in order to stay militarily involved.

“We’re not talking about long-term recommendations. There was no one who said, 'Five years from now, we could have 2,500 troops and that would be sustainable,'” Psaki told reporters.

Still, the episode could undercut Biden’s credibility among the public. Republicans quickly seized on the discrepancy, accusing the president of lying to the American public.

Milley in the hot seat

Milley in his opening remarks offered a forceful defense of calls with his Chinese counterpart during the waning months of the Trump administration, after disclosures about them invited criticism from Republicans.

Milley said he acted on “concerning intelligence” indicating the Chinese were afraid the U.S. would attack them, and he had a responsibility to work to deescalate the situation.

“My job at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you,” he said.

The phone calls, which occurred Oct. 30 and Jan. 8, days after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, were among a handful of juicy revelations about Milley from the new book “Peril.” Milley also defended a meeting he convened with senior military leaders to review the procedures around launching nuclear weapons, after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) raised concerns about former President Trump’s mental state to him in a private phone call.

Though Milley’s decision to address the issue at the outset of the hearing likely lessened the scrutiny of his actions, lawmakers indicated they have further questions.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked for a list of U.S. officials who joined him on the calls with his Chinese counterpart and a list of similar calls made to military counterparts from other nations between September 2020 and Jan. 20. Cotton also sought readouts of the calls circulated in the Pentagon.

Officials predicted Afghanistan would collapse, but not that fast

Austin said military officials had discussed “a range of possibilities,” but no one planned for the possibility the Afghan government would collapse as quickly as it did.

“We certainly did not plan against a collapse of the government in 11 days,” Austin told lawmakers in response to a lawmaker question.

"The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away — in many cases without firing a shot — took us all by surprise. It would be dishonest to claim otherwise,” Austin said in his opening statement.

He also said Biden administration officials “need to consider some uncomfortable truths,” including that officials “didn’t fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks,” and “there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight.”

Milley, meanwhile, offered a more blunt assessment: “We absolutely missed the rapid 11-day collapse of the Afghan military and the collapse of their government,” he said, noting that most intelligence assessments indicated a collapse could occur in late fall at the earliest.

The four-star general chalked up the misstep as a failure to fully track the leadership, morale and will among Afghan forces and said it would need to be a reflection point for military leadership as they train other armies.

“Kabul was taken with a couple hundred guys on motorcycles and there wasn't a shot fired. So my question to myself, is how do we miss that? What happened? How did that happen? And that's one of the things we've got to figure out. How is it that an army of that size — they were trained, they were manned, they're equipped, etc. — how is it that the factors of will, leadership and morale just collapse like that?” Milley said.

Lawmakers accuse Defense, State of dodging responsibility

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle complained that the fractured roles for the evacuation were enabling officials to dodge questions and responsibility.

“When the State Department is here and we ask them a question they say, ‘Well you have to ask the Defense Department that.’ And now today again Defense Department people are before us and the question was asked and the answer to Senator Inhofe was ‘Well, you'll have to ask the State Department that,’ ” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said, adding Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) had “gently but fatherly sent a message to the administration at our last classified hearing that we need to cut that out.”

But the frustrations over accountability were most acute with Republicans. Some have pushed for heads to roll, with Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) calling for resignations and with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asking each of the three officials present if they had offered their resignation letter to Biden after the evacuation.

“On this issue, one of the biggest national security fiasco is in a generation, no one is accountable, and the American people are livid, because they saw it, they see it, they know it's a debacle,” Sullivan said.

The Biden administration sought to frame the exit as a chaotic situation within the grasp of the military.

“Strategically the war was lost. The enemy is in Kabul. So you have a strategic failure while you simultaneously have an operational and tactical success by soldiers on the ground,” Milley said, adding that the U.S. was able to scale up its military presence on the ground due to military planning.

“To be clear, those first two days were difficult. We all watched with alarm the images of Afghans rushing the runway and our aircraft. We all remember the scenes of confusion outside the airport. But within 48 hours, our troops restored order and process began to take hold,” Austin said in his opening statement.

US might put troops on the ground again

The three officials all agreed it would be difficult to keep extremist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda at bay with no U.S. forces on Afghanistan soil, with McKenzie noting that there’s always the possibility troops will need to be sent back in to deal with such a threat.

“I think we’re always going to reserve the right to go in to go after ISIS and al Qaeda targets as they present themselves,” McKenzie said.

As part of the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban, signed in February 2020, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in exchange for the promise the Islamic extremist group would not allow terrorist organizations to use the country as a launchpad for attacks.

But McKenzie said it is “yet to be seen” if the U.S. government can prevent the likes of ISIS and al Qaeda from doing just that, voicing doubts about the Taliban's willingness to stick to that agreement.

“I do not trust the Taliban. I do not consider the Taliban to be a reliable partner, and any time you deal with the Taliban you have to look at what they do and not what they say,” he said.

And Milley said it is still "too early to tell" what effect the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan had on the terror threat against the United States.

“I think we've got about, you know — to elaborate a little bit — probably got about six months here to really sort this out, to see which direction things are going to go. It's not much time, but that's my personal estimate, it could be out to 12. And then we're gonna have some indicators and warnings of what direction this is going to go, but that's where I'd put it,” Milley said.

Austin, meanwhile, said it is “not preordained that we’re going to have to go back,” but “we recognize that trans-national terrorists will migrate towards ungoverned spaces.”

[Source: By Morgan Chalfant,Ellen Mitchell and Rebecca Beitsch, The Hill, Washington, 28sep21]

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