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Milley, McKenzie: We Assessed that 2,500-3,500 Troops Should Stay. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired September 28, 2021 - 11:00   ET



LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: And to compound that, President Ghani continued to make changes in the leadership of the military, and this created further problems for the Afghan security forces.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): Mr. Secretary, I don't mean to interrupt you but my time is elapsing. So this gets to the overestimation that I think the overly optimistic assessment, because even as late as July, you're still encouraging the Afghan special forces. You're expecting the Ghani government to remain, but that was not the case.

In December of 2019, "The Washington Post" reported that the U.S. military commanders privately expressed a lack of confidence that the Afghan army and police could ever fend off much less defeat the Taliban on their own.

So, General Milley, you noted that there were some specific military lessons to be learned. This is not the first time that I think we have relied upon overly optimistic assessments of conditions on the ground or conflict conditions. Certainly happened in Vietnam.

So, my question to you is what specific steps can we take to make sure that our assessments are not overly optimistic so we can avoid the kind of reliance on assessments that are not accurate?

GEN. MARK MILLEY, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I think in the case of working with other countries' armies, it's important to have advisers with those units so you can do a holistic assessment of things that are very difficult to measure. The morale factors, leadership, that's one key aspect.

Another part I think that's really important, and this is a lesson from Vietnam and I think today is don't Americanize the war. You know, we learned that in El Salvador or Colombia, for example, where we did assist and help other countries' armies fight insurgencies and we are quite effective. But there was their country, their army that bore the burden of all the fighting. And we had very few advisers. It was quite effective.

Now, every country is different. Every war is different. It has to be evaluated on its own merits. Those are key points worth thinking about. HIRONO: I agree.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Senator Hirono.

Senator Rounds, please?

SEN. MIKE ROUNDS (R-SD): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Gentlemen, than you for your willingness to appear before this committee to answer questions on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. You've received and will continue to receive tough questions on what led to this decision. This is an important constitutional requirement of the jobs you have agreed to serve in. I thank you all for your many years of service to our nation.

I want to underline the fact that every single member of this committee regardless of party is grateful for the dedication and bravery exhibited by our service members, especially those who gave their last full measure of devotion at Abbey Gate.

General McKenzie, General Miller told this committee that he recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and this is back in January of 2021, because he felt that Afghan forces would not hold up long without our support. Seems to me that there would have been a process to convey general miller's recommendation to the president.

Can you share the process and who conveyed General Miller's recommendation? And was that recommendation delivered to both President Trump at the time and also to President Biden?

GEN. KENNETH FRANK MCKENZIE, U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: There is a process for delivering recommendations from commanders in the field. I was part of that process. While I've been clear I won't give you my recommendation, I've given you my view, which you can draw your own conclusions from. And my view is that 2,500 was an appropriate number to remain and if we went below that number, in fact, we would probably witness a collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan military, so --

ROUNDS: General McKenzie, I guess my question is, would it be fair for the committee to assume that both President Trump and President Biden received that specific information that had been assumed to be delivered by General Miller?

MCKENZIE: I believe it would be reasonable for the committee to assume that.

ROUNDS: And would General Miller have been able to deliver that directly to the president or would someone else have had to have delivered that for him?

MCKENZIE: I would leave it to general miller to express an opinion on, that but he and I both had an opportunity to be in executive social gatherings with the president, and I can't share anything beyond making that statement.


ROUNDS: Thank you.

Secretary Austin, this committee was briefed on the series of concept drills that examine the potential scenarios that could arise from the execution of different types of actions and counteractions, multiple leaders, that the worst-case scenario, a collapse of the Afghan government, was not something these drills factored in as a possibility.

Is it true we did tabletop exercises and went through these drills and we never assumed that there could be an midfield collapse of the Afghan government?

AUSTIN: We planned for a range of possibilities. The entire collapse of the Afghan government was clearly one of the things that if you look at the intel estimates and some of the estimates that others had made that could happen, but in terps of specific planning, especially with respect to NEO, we planned for, you know, a contested environment or an uncontested environment, requirement to evacuate a moderate amount of people versus a large amount of people. So there was a range of possibilities that we addressed.

ROUNDS: But never be an midfield collapse of the government.

AUSTIN: We certainly did not plan against a collapse of the government in 11 days.

ROUNDS: Thank you. General Milley, I think Senator Cotton made a very good point with regard to the timing, the collapse of Kabul and the timing you were asked for your professional military opinion about a path forward, which seems to be a real challenge for many of us because it appears in your professional military opinion, it would have been prudent to have used a different approach than a date certain with regard to a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

And if that is correct, and if there were other alternatives presented to the president, I'm certain that the frustration that you felt in not having your professional military advice followed closely by an incoming president, that you were then tasked in a very short period of time with handling what was a position in time for the people that were on the ground there to respond in an emergency basis.

Would it be fair to say that you changed from a long-term plan of gradual withdrawal based on conditions to one in which you had to make immediate changes based upon a date certain?

MILLEY: Senator, as a matter of professional advice, I would advice any leader, don't put date certains on end dates. Make things conditioned based. Two presidents in a row put dates on it. I don't think that's -- my advice is don't put specific dates. Make it conditions based. That's how I've been trained many, many years.

With respect, though, to the 31st, and the decision on 25th, the risk to mission and to force and most importantly the risk to the American citizens remaining, that was going to go up, not down on the first of September.

And the American citizen, I know there's American citizens there, but there would have been greater risk if we stayed past the 31st in my professional opinion.

ROUNDS: Thank you.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN: Senator Kaine, please?

SEN. TIM KAINE (D-VA): Thank you, Mr. Chair.

To the witnesses, I want to return to a point that Senator Wicker made. I informed the DOD witness about ten days ago that we would expect an answer to the question of how many Americans are still in Afghanistan and that we would not appreciate an answer that that was deferred to state. I'm going to ask the question during my second round of questions after lunch and with the number of staff who are here in this room and in the ante room we ought to be able to get it answered.

And if we can't, it will suggest to the committee -- and I don't think you want to suggest this to the committee -- that you don't want to be responsive to that question or that you don't talk to the State Department, or that the number of Americans (AUDIO GAP) that you're indifferent too. I don't think any of those are true. So, I'll ask the question after lunch and hopefully we can get an answer.

Two compliments and then a critical observation and inquiry. First, thanks to President Biden for ending the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan after 20 years. It took guts and it was the right thing to do and should have been earlier. A Virginia service member whose wife is expecting said to me recently, I'm so glad my baby is not being born into a country at war.


Some want us to stay on permanent war footing in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Some will point out that U.S. troops are still deployed, still in harm's way, still carrying out limited military strikes around the world.

But to the families of those who have been deployed over and over again into Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of the last 20 years, they are relieved that America is now turning the page and rejecting the notion that we should be a nation in permanent war.

Second, the effort to evacuate more than 120,000 (AUDIO GAP) circumstances was remarkable. I visited Dulles Expo Center, the principal arrival point for about 80 percent of the Afghans. I also visited Ft. Lee, the first of the eight forts that process Afghans. And I visited with Afghans, our troop, many federal agencies work together, NGOs. The competent and compassionate service on the American side and the deep gratitude among Afghans made a deep impression on me. We should do all we can to make that transition to safe life in America as productive as possible.

My chief criticism and question is this -- why did the Afghan security forces and civilian government collapsed so quickly, and why did the U.S. so over-estimate their capacity?

The second half of the question, why we over estimated their capacity, is very important. To any who have said we couldn't see this coming, members of this committee know that's wrong. An immediate collapse may not have been the most likely outcome, but we've heard for years, particularly from the intel committee that DOD estimates of Afghan strength were way too optimistic.

I believe the U.S. government had a good evacuation plan, but it was premised on an Afghan civilian and military government that showed high resistance to the Taliban. And so we did not adequately plan for the real possibility of a quick collapse. We need to explore both military and interagency decision-making processes to understand why we were unrealistic and how to correct it going forward.

But the most important part of the question is why a military we are trained for 20 years at a cost of $800 plus billion collapsed so quickly. I can think of three reasons. After I put them on the table I would like each of you beginning with General McKenzie to address the question if we can. If we can't, we can do it when we come back after lunch.

First, the lightning collapse may show that our training was insufficient and it did not prepare the Afghan military to defend the country on their own. That should have been our goal but we failed to accomplish it. If so, how must we change our thinking about training foreign militaries?

Second, the lightning collapse may not prove they were poor fighters but that they were demoralized. Did they lack confidence in their own political and military leaders? Were they demoralized by a 2020 peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban that didn't even include the Afghan government? Mr. Chair, I would like to introduce the peace agreement for the record.

CHAIRMAN: Without objection.

KAINE: Did U.S. and allied funding deepen a culture of corruption that long predated our involvement? Even the best fighting force may give in if they have no confidence in their leadership.

Third, the lightning collapse may show we wanted things for Afghans that Afghan leadership did not want for themselves. We celebrated gains in public health and women's education and we assumed Afghans would fight to preserve those gains rather than allow the Taliban to take over. In other words we thought we knew what Afghans wanted, what they feared and what they would fight for. But was our belief, though well-intentioned, incredibly naive? We

can't get one-third of Americans to take a COVID vaccine or accept the results of a presidential election. Do we really think we can transform the culture of another nation?

So, to each of our witnesses when we return in the second round I will ask you this question. Why do you believe the Afghan military and civilian government collapsed so quickly? With that I will yield back, Mr. Chair.

CHAIRMAN: Thank you very much, Senator Kaine.

Senator Ernst, please.

SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA): Yes, thank you, Mr. Chair. Gentlemen, thank you very much for being here today.

Unfortunately, this morning's hearing is required due to the haphazard withdrawal of U.S. forces, American citizens and many of our Afghan partners. However, we do want to thank the men and women in uniform that assisted the evacuation of those that were able to make it out and, of course, to those that have service -- given their service and sacrifice over the past two decades of the global war on terror.

The loss of our service members and abandonment of Americans and Afghan allies last month was an unforced, disgraceful humiliation that didn't have to happen. The president put a cheap political victory, a withdrawal timeline timed to the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on his calendar and executed his vision with little regard for American lives or the real threats that we face.

I do appreciate your open, your honest and expert participation in communicating to this committee what went wrong.


I think our American citizens are at a real crossroads right now where they are questioning the leadership from this president and this administration. President Biden's blunders can't be erased, but the United States must now account for them through a revamped counterterrorism strategy that recognizes the newfound momentum of terrorists and new threats emanating from the Middle East in addition to rising challenges we see coming from China and Russia. Pretty high stakes.

Secretary Austin, I would like to start with you. Did President Biden or any of his national security advisors express any military or diplomatic conditions for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan beyond the looming date of 9/11? What were those military conditions or diplomatic conditions that were outlined to you?

AUSTIN: Again, once the president went through a very deliberate decision-making process and made his decision that -- to exit Afghanistan, there were no additional conditions placed on it.

ERNST: Can you tell me that he did take into consideration military or diplomatic conditions, and what were those conditions that he was weighing as he was making those decisions?

AUSTIN: Sure. One of the things that, you know, all of us wanted to see happen was for this -- this conflict to end with a diplomatic solution. And so, one of the things that we certainly wanted to see was progress being made in the Doha negotiations. We did not see -- or he did not see any progress being made and there was really not much of a bright future for that process.

ERNST: So, General Milley had stated earlier that his recommendation should -- is always, as any military commander should do, should be conditions based, and we have to be able to evaluate whether those conditions are achievable and if we can successfully complete those.

It sounds like there were very little -- or very little consideration was given to diplomatic or military conditions. The diplomatic, again going to conditions based, the diplomatic end to it, I think General Milley, you also said that the military mission would end on the 31st and transition to a diplomatic mission.

But I don't understand how we fulfill a diplomatic mission after August 31st when there are absolutely no diplomats on the ground in Afghanistan. They're gone. They've been evacuated. Who do we hand that mission off to when there is nobody there to complete it?

So can you then say that the president directed you, Secretary Austin, to execute an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan? Unconditional. August 31st, done.

AUSTIN: Once he made the decision to withdraw, I mean we -- that was the decision, to leave. And we certainly wanted to make sure that we shaped conditions so that our embassy could maintain a presence here and continue to engage the government of Afghanistan.

ERNST: Secretary Austin --

AUSTIN: So protection of the embassy was pretty important.

ERNST: Yes, Secretary Austin, you are extremely diplomatic in your answers. I can appreciate that, but this was not a conditions-based withdrawal. I think all three of you have stated that you made your best opinion known to the president of the United States. He had no conditions other than to get our people out of Afghanistan, which he failed at because we still have Americans as well as Afghan partners in Afghanistan.

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I yield back.

CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Senator Ernst.

Senator King, please.

SEN. ANGUS KING (I-ME): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I am finding this a very interesting hearing. It is really two hearings at once. One is on the question of should we leave Afghanistan, and if we shouldn't what should be the nature of our troop commitment and our commitment to the country. The other is the withdrawal, which I thought was the subject of the hearing.

The decision to leave Afghanistan was made by President Trump and his administration on February 29th, 2020, where we committed to leave by a date certain. There was a particular provision or a condition, if you will, about negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. There was even a date specified, March 10th, 2020, less than two weeks after the signing of the Doha agreement.


Clearly, that condition was not met. My question is -- and, General Milley, you were the only one who overlapped the two administrations. Were there any efforts on behalf of the prior administration to enforce that condition of negotiation with the Afghan government and the Taliban?

MILLEY: Senator, as I said in my opening remarks, the conditions that were required of the Taliban, none of them were met except one.

KING: My question is did we attempt to enforce those conditions? Had we informed the Taliban, for example, we won't advocate for the release of 5,000 prisoners unless you begin negotiations or something similar?

MILLEY: I don't have personal knowledge of that, whether or not, you know, others were personally saying that. I can't -- I don't have personal knowledge of that, but I do know none of the conditions were met, except the one which is don't attack American forces and coalition forces. That condition was met.

KING: The conditions were not met, but you testified that the troop withdrawals --

MILLEY: Correct.

KING: -- and the release of the 5,000 Taliban prisoners did proceed even though conditions had not been met, is that correct?

MILLEY: That is correct.

KING: You testified you provided your best military advice to President Biden that there should be a residual force left in Afghanistan. Did you provide the same advice to president Trump when they were negotiating the Doha agreement?

MILLEY: Again, I am not going to discuss precise advice to --

KING: Was it your best military judgment a residual force --

MILLEY: At that time, yes. That's what that series of memos and advice and meetings, et cetera, in the September/October time frame, that's exactly what they were. You can talk to Secretary Esper. He can tell you the same thing.

KING: So your military judgment didn't change on January 20th?


KING: Thank you.

General McKenzie, you touched on something that you were the only one to mention it in this entire hearing. In my judgment one of the key moments was the fleeing of President Ghani and that that is, in fact, what really pulled the rug out from under the military and demoralized the entire government. That was really the -- not the beginning of the end, the end of the end.

Is that -- do you have some thoughts on that?

MCKENZIE: I think when we consider what happened to the Afghan military, you have to consider it linked, completely linked to what happened to the Afghan government. When your president flees literally with no notice in the middle of the day it has a profound debilitating effect on everything else.

Now, events were pretty far along on 15 august, I would note that. But I do believe it is possible they could have fought and held parts of Kabul had the president stayed. I think that really demoralized those remnants of Afghans, and there were still considerable Afghan combat formations around Kabul on 15 August. I believe they were disorganized by that and led to the Taliban pushing in as fast as they wanted to go into the center of the city.

KING: I do want to point out for the record that to my knowledge and memory, this committee never had a hearing on the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in February of 2020. It now appears that would have been a beneficial hearing because we could have discussed all of these issues, but we were already on the path for withdrawal.

The withdrawal date under that agreement was May 1st of 2021. President Biden extended that. I don't know whether it was a negotiation or some kind of understanding, until the end of August.

General Milley, in questioning from senator cotton you talked about your military advice about leaving on August 31st versus staying to try to help additional Americans leave. Was it the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs that the August 31st date should be observed? And, if so, why was that the military advice?

MILLEY: It was of the joint chiefs plus General McKenzie, General Miller and general -- not Miller, but Admiral Vasely and General Donahue. The reason is risk to force, risk to mission and risk to American citizens.

On 1st of September, we were going to go to war again with the Taliban, of that there was no doubt. We were already at -- in conflict with ISIS. So at that point in time, 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 clear Kabul, that's what would have happened on the 1st. That would have resulted in significant casualties on the U.S. side and placed American citizens that are still there at greater risk in my professional view and in the view of all of the other generals.

So, on the 25th we recommended that we transition to a diplomatic option beginning on the 31st.


KING: Thank you, General. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Senator King.

Senator Tillis, please.

SEN. THOM TILLIS (R-NC): General Milley, you said that the Taliban have not lived up to the terms of the agreement. Give me a rough date of when they first breached the terms of the agreement.

MILLEY: When they were --

TILLIS: When you said they were not living up to the terms of the Doha agreement. What was the first evidence that they were not living up to the terms of the agreement?

MILLEY: The memo signed 29th of February. So through really the fighting season of the summer of '20, one of the requirements for example --

TILLIS: Okay. So more than a year ago?

MILLEY: Absolutely sure.

TILLIS: Okay. I don't buy the idea that this president was bound by a decision made by a prior president. This was not a treaty. It was clearly an agreement where the Taliban were not living up to it. This president, President Biden, could have come in, reasserted conditions and completely changed the timeline. He's not bound by the president's prior agreements any more than he was bound by President Trump's decision to exit the Iran deal or the Paris climate accords. So, that to me is a false narrative.

I almost have to say that this president moving forward with a failed construct has cost American lives or has cost lives of North Carolinians. We're working on the case with an SIV holder who had a sister who worked for an NGO, Save the Children, and a father in the Afghan police force, and as we were working to get through them the Taliban -- Taliban 2.0 as everybody replaces the one we replaced in 2001, they sent pictures of the slit throats of people that we were working personally with. They killed this pregnant woman. They killed this police officer, and they are killing countless other people now that we should have gotten out.

Secretary Austin, I think we do owe a debt of gratitude to the people who got 124,000 people out. It was a logistical success, but this is a strategic failure.

General McKenzie, General Miller said 2,500. I have heard you and secretary -- and General Milley also say you agreed with the idea, you personally agreed. Didn't necessarily say that you recommended to the president the 2,500.

I understand from General Miller that there was a broader context within that recommendation. There were 2,500 fighters, U.S. fighters, but I understand almost 5,000 NATO allies or 5,000 others that were willing to remain on the ground. And as General Miller said, keep the hand on the shoulder of the Afghan national forces so that we could have a counter to the Taliban, is that correct? That it was bigger than that, it was in probably the 7,000 range?

MCKENZIE: Senator, you are correct.


MCKENZIE: Our NATO allies would have been on board.

TILLIS: And also a CIA presence with bases out there for human intelligence to help us be more precise, more exquisite with the execution of whatever operations we had on the ground?

MCKENZIE: That is correct, Senator.

TILLIS: Now, I know you won't say you advised the president, but is it fair to say when General Miller, he said that he advised all of you on his recommendations, it sounds like two of the three of you agreed with it. Is it at least fair to say that in the interagency discussion that those recommendations were made and that in your best military advice it would have saved -- kept the situation stable in Afghanistan?

MCKENZIE: Well, I stated consistently my position was if you go below 2,500 you are going to look at a collapse of the Afghan military. I didn't -- I did not foresee it to be days. I thought it would take months, but the rest of the ecosystem would go out with it, too.


MCKENZIE: The NATO partners are going to leave, the interagency is going to leave and you are leaving the Afghans by themselves.

TILLIS: Did any of you embrace the notion that the 2,500, plus the several thousand, I think an estimated 5,000 NATO allies and partners who were willing to stay there as well, did any of you agree with the president's assessment that if he acted on that recommendation that he would ultimately have to send tens of thousands more U.S. service members to Afghanistan? That if we held that one, that it would ultimately just delay the day where we would be back to 100,000 or 50,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

MCKENZIE: So, Senator, these discussions were occurring in January, February and March. They're separate from the late August discussion, so I want to make that point.

TILLIS: But in your best military judgment, do you believe that the recommendations that general miller put forth with some 2,500, and I think General Milley said maybe flex up to 3,500, do you believe it would have sown the seeds for ultimately having to send tens of thousands of U.S. service members back to Afghanistan as the president said publicly?

MCKENZIE: Senator, I believe there was a risk you would incur increasing attacks by the Taliban. That was a risk withholding at 2,500. That's a very clear risk.