Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley offered senators a blunt assessment of the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. "It was a logistical success, but a strategic failure," Milley told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. He suggested the war had been lost, but touted the U.S. military effort that evacuated more than 124,000 people in the final weeks of the U.S. presence in the country.
The nation's top military officials — Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie — faced tough questioning, insults and calls for their resignation from Congress in their first appearance before lawmakers since the withdrawal.
Austin anticipated questions about the execution of the withdrawal in his opening statement. "Was it perfect?" he asked. "Of course not," though he, too, took note of the evacuation.
In mid-April, President Biden announced that all U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan by September 11, a date he later moved up to August 31.
The military leaders Tuesday said publicly that they had recommended to Mr. Biden that the U.S. maintain a residual force of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, the level that was in place at the end of the Trump administration. McKenzie said he was confident the president heard the recommendations and listened carefully.
Once Mr. Biden had made his decision, the U.S. military began carrying out the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which was effectively finished in July with the closure of Bagram Air Base, the largest military base in Afghanistan.
The administration had intended to keep the embassy in Kabul open to continue to engage with the Afghan government, but in just 11 days in August, the Afghan military forces and government collapsed, surprising U.S. officials.
"There's no intel assessment that says the government's going to collapse and the military is going to collapse in 11 days," Milley told senators.
The Taliban's takeover of districts near Kabul made it necessary to begin the noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO), the mass airlift effort that took place in August. Once the State Department called for the operation, the military began to evacuate U.S. embassy personnel, American citizens, and at-risk Afghans.
"On [August the 14th], the ambassador — Ambassador [Ross] Wilson called the NEO. Should that have been called earlier? That — I think that's an open question that needs further exploration based on a series of meetings," Milley said.
The U.S. military helped evacuate 124,000 people in just 17 days, but left many behind. Though critics and some allies had called on the U.S. to extend its August 31 deadline, Milley told lawmakers that if troops had stayed beyond the deadline — until all the U.S. citizens and Special Immigrant Visa applicants, who numbered in the tens of thousands — were taken out of the country, there was a "near certainty" U.S. troops would have faced more fatal attacks. And those who were trying to leave would also have been exposed to more danger.
Austin told the senators there are now fewer than 100 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan who wanted to and were ready to depart, noting that 21 Americans departed the country Tuesday
Following the suicide attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and over 150 Afghan civilians, the U.S. conducted a drone strike based on intelligence that suggested an imminent threat of another attack. But the strike killed 10 innocent civilians, including 7 children, not terrorists.
McKenzie said commanders had acted on the intelligence they had, and although there were several occasions where the intelligence prevented an attack, it was wrong that time.
McKenzie and Milley voiced concerns about gathering intelligence going forward, now that there is no longer a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The president has often expressed confidence in the U.S. military's ability to conduct "over the horizon" strikes, but Milley said the withdrawal "makes it much more difficult" to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. He added it's not impossible, but it will be more difficult.
One of the reasons Mr. Biden has cited for withdrawing from Afghanistan was that al Qaeda is no longer the threat it once was. But the witnesses Tuesday conceded to several senators who asked about this point that there is still an al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, albeit a diminished one.
And top military officials aren't quite ready to guarantee the ability of the U.S. to stop terror groups like al Qaeda and ISIS from using Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks.
"We could get to that point, but I do not yet have that level of confidence," McKenzie said.
When asked if the war on terror was over, McKenzie replied, "The war on terror is not over and the war in Afghanistan is not over either."
Another subject — recent books that include anecdotes involving Milley during the Trump administration — was the subject of some of the questioning by Republican senators on the committee.
Milley's concern about former President Trump's actions in the waning days of his administration have made it into three new books, including "Peril," by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. In "Peril," Woodward and Costa outline two phone calls Milley made to his Chinese counterpart assuring him the U.S. had no intention of striking. In "Frankly, We Did Win This Election," Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender wrote that Milley refused Mr. Trump's suggestion that the military should "crack some skulls" and even shoot protesters demonstrating after George Floyd's death.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, asked by GOP Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn whether he had spoken to the authors of the books, affirmed that he had, though he declined to weigh in on their accuracy — "I haven't read any of the books," he told senators.
He has already faced criticism over these anecdotes. In a statement, a spokesman for Milley said, "His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability."
House lawmakers will hear from Austin, Milley and McKenzie on Wednesday.