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At This Hour

Senators Grill Military Officials on Afghanistan Withdrawal. Aired 11:30a-12p ET

Aired September 28, 2021 - 11:30   ET


GEN. KENNETH FRANK MCKENZIE, U.S. CENTCOM COMMANDER: 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. But I'll tell you, Senator, I'm really humbled recently by my ability to deduce what the Taliban would or would not do, so I think it's hard to know.

SEN. THOM TILLIS (R-NC): Thank you. And next round, I'll get onto the fate of the SIV holders and people that are stranded in Afghanistan. Thank you, Mr. Chair.

SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): Thank you, Senator Tillis. Let me recognize Senator Warren. And I'm going over for the vote. Senator Hirono will preside in my absence. Senator Warren, please?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. So I want to begin by zooming out because it is not possible to understand our final months in Afghanistan without viewing them in the context of the 20 years that led up to them. Anyone who says the last few months were a failure but everything before that was great clearly hasn't been paying attention.

In 2015, the Taliban conquered its first province since 2001. By October 2018, the Afghan government controlled only 54 percent of the 407 districts. And by May 2020, the Afghan government controlled less than a third of Afghan's 407 districts. We poured money and support and air cover and the Afghan government continued to fail.

By 2021 it was clear that 2,500 troops could not successfully prop up a government that had been losing ground and support to the Taliban for years.

Secretary Austin, I understand that you advised President Biden to stay in again, but as you acknowledge, staying or withdrawing is a decision for the president alone. So, I want to focus on what happened next. Once President Biden made the decision to have U.S. forces leave the country, who designed the evacuation?

LLOYD AUSTIN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, Senator, again, I won't address what I advised -- the advice I gave to the president. I would just say in his calculus, this was not risk-free and the Taliban, as we've said earlier in this hearing, were committed to recommencing their operations against our forces. His assessment was in order to sustain that and continue to do things that benefitted the Afghans, that would require at some point that he increase the presence -- our presence there in Afghanistan.

So, once he made the decision, then, of course, from a military perspective in terms of the retrograde of the people and the equipment, that planning was done by Central Command and certainly principally by General Miller. Very detailed planning and then we came back and briefed the entire interagency on the details of that plan.

WARREN: Okay. So, the military planned the evacuation. Did President Biden follow your advice on executing on the evacuation plan?

AUSTIN: He did.

WARREN: Did President Biden give you all the resources that you needed?

AUSTIN: From my view, he did.

WARREN: Did President Biden ignore your advice on the evacuation at any point?

AUSTIN: No, Senator, he did not.

WARREN: Did he refuse any request for anything that you needed or asked for?


WARREN: So, the president followed the advice of his military advisers in planning and executing this withdrawal. As we've already established, the seeds for our failure in Afghanistan were planted many, many years ago. So, let me ask you one more question, Secretary Austin. Knowing what you know now, if we had stayed in Afghanistan for another year, would it have made a fundamental difference?

AUSTIN: Again, it depends on what size you remain in at and what your objectives are. There are a range of possibilities but if you stayed there at a force posture of 2,500, certainly you'd be in a fight with the Taliban, and you'd have to reinforce yourself.

WARREN: I appreciate your looking at it as a fighter, but I would add one more year of propping up a corrupt government and an army that wouldn't fight on its own was not going to give us a different outcome. And anyone who thinks differently is either fooling himself or trying to fool the rest of us.

I believe President Biden had it exactly right, withdrawing was long overdue. The withdrawal was conducted in accordance with the advice of his military advisers who planned and executed every step of this withdrawal.


Thank you, Mr. Chairman -- Madam Chair.

HIRONO: Thank you, Senator Warren. Senator Sullivan, you are recognized?

SEN. DAN SULLIVAN (R-AK): Thank you, Madam Chair.

Gentlemen, this committee recognizes that your constitutional duty is to follow the lawful orders of the president or resign if you don't agree with his decisions and policies, like Secretary Mattis did. But I want to emphasize, you do not have a duty, constitutional or otherwise, to cover for the commander-in-chief when he's not telling the truth to the American people. With that, I have a few questions that I'd like you to keep short, concise answers to.

On August 18th, in a media interview to the American people, the president said that none of his military advisers told him that he should keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan. General Milley, that was a false statement by the president of the United States, was it not?

GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: I didn't even see the statement, to tell you the truth.

SULLIVAN: I'm reading you a truthful statement. That was a false statement.

MILLEY: Yes, I'm --

SULLIVAN: Look, I don't have a lot of time. Was that a false statement to the American people or not?

MILLEY: I'm not going to categorize a statement of the president of the United States.

SULLIVAN: General McKenzie, was that a false statement? The president said none of his commanders said that he should keep troops in Afghanistan. Was that a false statement by the president of the United States? Remember, you do not have a duty to cover for the president when he's not telling the truth. Was that a false statement or not?

MCKENZIE: I've given you my opinion and judgment on it and I'll let --

SULLIVAN: I think we all know it was a false statement, okay? That's number one.

The president also said if there's an American citizen left behind in Afghanistan, the military is going to stay until we get them out. General Milley, was that statement -- did that statement turn out to be true or untrue by the president?

MILLEY: I think that was the intent, but we gave him a recommendation on the 25th of August to terminate the mission on the 31st of August.

SULLIVAN: The statement was untrue. Let me ask another question. General Milley, General McKenzie, the president around the same time said, quote, Al Qaeda was gone from Afghanistan, told the American people that. Was that true or not true? Was Al Qaeda gone from Afghanistan in mid-August? True or not true?

MILLEY: Al Qaeda is still in Afghanistan. They were there in mid- August. They have been severely disrupted over many years. They are not --

SULLIVAN: So it wasn't true. General McKenzie, was that true or not?

MCKENZIE: Al Qaeda was present in Afghanistan.

SULLIVAN: Okay. So, it wasn't true. Let me make one final one. The president called this entire retrograde operation an extraordinary success. General Miller in his testimony disagreed with that assertion. General Milley, was this Afghanistan retrograde operation an extraordinary success?

MILLEY: There's two operations, Senator.

SULLIVAN: Just yes or no. I have a lot of questions. Was this an extraordinary success?

MILLEY: Senator, with all due respect, there's two operations. There's the retrograde, which Miller was in charge of, and there's the NEO, which CENTCOM was in charge of. The retrograde was executed and ended by mid-July with a residual force to defend the embassy. The NEO --

SULLIVAN: You and I have discussed this. Would you use the term extraordinary success for what took place in August in Afghanistan?

MILLEY: That's a noncombatant evacuation. And I think one of the other senators said it very well, it was a logistical success but a strategic failure. And I think those are two different --

SULLIVAN: Look, I think -- here's the problem. I think the whole world knows this is the cover of Economist Magazine, Biden's debacle. that had stories in it, articles in it called, the fiasco in Afghanistan is a huge and unnecessary blow to America's standing. That was one article. Joe Biden blames everybody else, that's another article. China sees America humbled, that's another article.

And, gentlemen, the problem here, these are not marginal misstatements by the president to the American people. These are dramatic, obvious falsehoods that go to the very heart of the foreign policy fiasco we have all witnessed. These are life-and-death deceptions that the president of the United States told the American people.

I have one final question. I might leave it because it's a long one for the follow-up. But here's the anger. I've never soon my constituents more angry about an issue than this, and it's the combination of everybody knowing that this is a debacle and yet people defending it as a, quote, extraordinary success. And here's the biggest, no accountability. No accountability.

You gentlemen have spent your lives, and I completely respect it, troops in combat, you've been in combat, you've had troops under your command killed in action, you have been part of an institution where accountability is so critical, and the American people respect that up and down the chain, where there are instances commanders get relieved up and down the chain.


We see it. The McCain incident, the Fitzgerald incident, the AAB incident with the Marine Corps, three-star, four-star flag officers all relieved of duty.

But on this matter, on the biggest national security fiasco in a generation, there has been zero accountability, no responsibility from anybody. So, I will ask this final question of all of you. Senator Cotton talked about --

HIRONO: Senator Sullivan --

SULLIVAN: Madam Chair, if I may --

HIRONO: -- could you submit your question for the record, please? We're trying to keep to five-minute questioning rounds. You can ask the question in your second round if you'd like. Thank you.

Senator Peters?

SEN. GARY PETERS (D-MI): Thank you, Madam Chair. Thank you to each and every one of you for your service to our country.

I want to return to some of the comments made by Senator Warren and looking at over the last 20 years. I think if ever we're going to have a strategic assessment of what happened in Afghanistan, it's important that any kind of strategic assessment is not just a look at the present but to look at the past and look at future and look at all three of those elements as we're making that kind of assessment. And if we're going to do that, we have to look at over the last 20 years that we were in Afghanistan and we're going to have to have a pretty hard assessment of that.

General Milley, you mentioned that strategic decisions have consequences and there are a lot of lessons to be learned over 20 years of our involvement in Afghanistan. I sat at this table here at the Armed Services for many years, served in the House before, had an opportunity to travel to Afghanistan on a couple of occasions. And when we've ever asked our military leaders of the situation in Afghanistan, we often heard, well, it's a stalemate right now, but this year coming up is going to be different. This year will be different. I heard that year after year. This year's going to be different. I know we were in a stalemate, but this year is going to be different.

There's one commentator has said, and, Secretary Austin, I want you to comment on this, he said that we didn't really had a 20-year war in Afghanistan, we had 20 one-year wars in Afghanistan. How would you respond to that?

AUSTIN: I would certainly say, Senator, that's something to think about. You've heard me say in my opening comments we have to ask ourselves some tough questions. Did we have the right strategy? Did we have too many strategies? And so if you're reshaping that strategy every year one year at a time, then that has consequences. So, I think that's something we have to go back and look at.

And we also have to look at the impact, the effect of the corruption that was in the environment, weak leadership, changes in leadership and a number of factors.

PETERS: Well, I want to build on that because I think that's important, Secretary Austin. For example, General Milley, when you commanded NATO ground forces in Afghanistan eight years ago, you called 2013 a critical year for the Afghan Security Forces because it was first time they'd taken responsibility for their security across the country. Secretary Austin, you offered similar assessments in 2015 and 2016 during testimony before this committee. As CENTCOM commander, you emphasized that there were 326,000 ANSF forces and they were ready to lead the security operations.

And I'll just say from also experience, especially when I was in Afghanistan, the input that I got from our commanders was that this year's going to be different, we're going to be able to do things better. But I got a completely different assessment when I went to the mess hall and ate with the soldiers and the marines and the folks on the ground who said, I don't trust these folks that we're with. I don't know if they're going to fight. In fact, they don't even show up. They get their paycheck but they don't show up. And now, there may have been some instances where they've performed and I know you've highlighted some of those.

But my question from a strategic standpoint is, did we just become fixated perhaps on some tactical performance from our forces and their forces and forget to measure the Afghan Security Force's actual institutional health as a fighting force that could sustain a fight even though they're in an incredibly weak economy and a whole host of complicated cultural issues?

AUSTIN: Clearly, questions we have to dill deep on. At one point, as you know, Senator, we had a number of advisers down to fairly low levels. As we began to lift the numbers of advisers that we had there and scaled back on the people that we had interfacing with the Afghans on a daily basis, we began to lose that fingertip feel.


And so our ability to assess with some degree of certainty continued to erode the smaller we got.

PETERS: My sense is that that was what we're hearing for years. It wasn't just at the end. This is an endemic problem for a decade, over a decade. So, hopefully, we will have the opportunity to do that.

That's my final question. What are we actually doing to learn from the conclusion of these military operations, particularly from a strategic assessment point of view when it comes to end-of-conflict transition? We're going to have potentially other operations things like this, even in great power competition. AUSTIN: Yes. So we always do, Senator, we're going to take a hard look at ourselves in terms of what we did over the last 20 years, what worked, what didn't work, and we're going to learn from those lessons and make sure that we incorporate that into our planning and our strategic assessment going forward.

PETERS: Thank you.

REED: Thank you very much, Senator Peters. Senator Kramer, please?

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER (R-ND): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I thank all three of you for your service and for being here. And God bless the men and women under your command.

General McKenzie, is it true that U.S. forces have the ISIS-K cell under surveillance prior to the August 26th and could have struck them before the deadly terrorist attacks at Kabul but were not given the authority to strike?

MCKENZIE: No, that's not true.

CRAMER: I noticed that the president was quick to take a victory lap after the first strike and pushed this tough guy image he's so famous for. He once threatened to have union bosses beat me up. He said things like just do it, if we find more, we'll strike them. Of course, this was after he said of the ISIS-K leaders, we will hunt you down. He talks tough. He said, go get them.

But I also know he's been equally silent, taking no responsibility for the strike on innocent civilians, including children, that was in part caused by, in my view, his insecure need to appear tough and just let you take the blame, General McKenzie. But what I really worry about is the aircrews who actually were pressured into pulling the trigger that terrible day.

Secretary Austin, as you know, the North Dakota Air National Guard operates Reapers around the world, and I know what kind of pressure those aircrews are under and the level of responsibility they feel to accomplish their missions properly. And I'm worried that whoever was operating the aircraft involved in the tragic 29th August strike was set up to fail by an administration that wanted a political victory more than they wanted an American victory. Have you reached out to the aircrew to make sure that they understand it's not their fault that there are seven dead children?

AUSTIN: I have not, senator. As you probably know, I have directed a three-star review of this incident, General McKenzie did an initial investigation, and I've directed a three-star review and so I won't make any comments.

CRAMER: You know, there certainly seemed to be a lot of indications that a terrorist event was likely if not imminent leading up to the ISIS-K bombing on the 26th. Were our military members -- why were our military members still exposed after that threat was known, General McKenzie? MCKENZIE: The purpose of our force at the airfield was to bring American citizens and Afghans at risk out. In order to do that, you had to have the gates open. You had to process people. You're right, there were a lot of threats, and we worked very hard to minimize those threats and you try to balance it. Every once in a while, the bad guys sneak one in on you. This is an example of where that occurred. It wasn't any lack of attention to trying to find those cells. We're looking hard for them and we did find a number, and we did, in fact, which I'll be happy to talk about in closed session, we did, in fact, enabled -- stop those attacks from occurring. This one, we were not successful on.

CRAMER: So, speaking of that, I want to drill down just -- and since I have a couple. The Taliban was controlling the checkpoints, obviously, around the airport. And you had indicated, General McKenzie, that the U.S. at the time -- you called it a pragmatic relationship of necessity with the Taliban. Did we share any information with the Taliban about the ISIS-K threat? And if so, how did the Taliban respond to it? In other words, how did they get in? Is it possible they let them in on purpose?

MCKENZIE: So, it is possible they did but the body of intelligence indicates that is not, in fact, what happened. So, one event happened and that's a terrible tragic event. A lot of other events didn't happen because that outer circle of Taliban forces were there.

Look, I defer to no one in my disdain for the Taliban and my lack of trust for them, but I believe they actually prevented other attacks from occurring. This event, someone got through.


I believe there were other times when people did not get through.

CRAMER: All right. Look, the reality is there are patriotic Americans all over the country, and certainly in North Dakota, they are really upset. I mean, they are genuinely pissed off. And they sense that there's a lot of sort of political positioning and apologizing and rationalizing, and no one is really saying anything other than it was an extraordinary event.

Now, you have admitted it wasn't perfect, I think were your words, General Milley, but extraordinary success just wrangles them when they hear that, especially when they see that out of the 124,000 people that were brought to the United States, we don't know much a whole bunch of them and yet we know a whole bunch of our people that weren't brought back to the United States, and they are upset. They are really, really upset.

And I know you know that. I hope that -- I think you're seeing the reflection of that in their elected representatives and we'll get to -- this afternoon, we'll probably drill down on some things, but I look forward to the closed session as well, General McKenzie, to learn more about August 26th.

REED: Thank you, Senator Cramer. Senator Manchin, please? SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): Thank you very much, and, first of all, I thank all three of you. I appreciate your service to our country and I've never doubted your unwavering commitment to defend our country and Constitution.

I'm having a hard time -- I'm old enough to understand. I remember Vietnam very well. I was in line to go there and had an injury in my playing ball at WVU and that didn't happen. So, anyway, I can't explain to the younger generation, to my children and grandchildren how do we get into this and never get out? We didn't learn from Vietnam. It was a horrible exit. I remember that very vividly. This was even worse than that as far as my -- my recall. And -- and I don't know what lessons we're taking from this right now.

But I look back at lack of an AUMF? We had an opening in the AUMF. We still haven't opened at the AUMF. If we would have had an AUMF and basically a time certain and specific goal, do any of you think that could have made a difference? I mean, hindsight being 20/20, what do we learn from these mistakes? How do we prevent them again?

We thought from Vietnam we learned not to go and try to change a nation and here we are trading partners with Vietnam. Did that same one end up with Afghanistan? I can't comprehend any of it, to be honest with you. And I have no explanation. So, anybody that wants to help me, and, General Milley, I know that you have a great -- a great knowledge of history and how we've gotten into situations and how maybe we should keep from repeating that.

MILLEY: Yes. As I said, Senator Manchin, in my opening comment --

MANCHIN: I'm sorry, I was conducting an NER (ph) meeting. I wasn't able to be here. I'm so sorry.

MILLEY: I mentioned that there's been four presidents, 20 commanders on the ground, seven or eight chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, dozens of secretaries of defense, et cetera, and outcomes like this are not determined in, you know, the last five days, the last 20 days or the last year for that matter. Outcomes in a war like this, an outcome that is a strategic failure, the enemy is in charge in Kabul. There's no way else to describe that. That outcome is a cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days.

And there are a huge amount of strategic, operational and tactical lessons that need to be learned from this. Some of them in the military sphere, in the narrow military sphere, one of them, for example, is the mirror imaging of the building of the Afghan National Army based on American doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures. And that made a military that may -- I'm going to wait for a full evaluation, but may have been overly dependent upon us, our presence, contractors and higher tech systems in order to fight a counterinsurgency war. That's one area that needs to be fully explored. Another is the intel. How did we miss the collapse of an army and a government that big, that fast in only 11 days? That needs to be pulled apart.

And then there are other factors that are not strictly military, but things like the legitimacy of the government, corruption, the parasitic nature of the police forces. There's a whole series, 10 or 20 that I wrote down just a week or two ago. They need to be looked at, and looked at in-depth and very seriously and comprehensively over time.

MANCHIN: We know where the president -- the former president of Afghanistan is today and how much money he took with him. Do we have any idea?

MILLEY: Secretary Austin, do you have any idea?

AUSTIN: I think that he may be in the UAE, Senator. I'm not certain of that. That's the last report that I had. And in terms of any money that he may have taken with him, I have no knowledge of any amounts of money.

MANCHIN: You all haven't been able to -- I mean, there's no way that we can trace that through our -- I mean, through the banking institutions, no way that we have any insight on that, whatsoever?


There has to be exchanges going back and forth because I'm sure he's not keeping it in the Bank of Afghanistan.

AUSTIN: Yes. The defense doesn't have any insight on that, Senator, but certainly I'm not sure if the law enforcement agency --

MANCHIN: Maybe treasury might. I'm just looking for some answers that maybe aren't answerable but everyone has asked the questions of how do we prevent this from happening again and why didn't we see it? There's not a person that's returned that I've spoken to in special ops that were there, when they returned. I was there a couple of times. In 2006, I was there. In 2011, I was there. But every time, it got worse, it didn't get better. So, this couldn't be a surprise. They never were going to step to the plate and it couldn't have been a surprise that they wouldn't fight. They never had an allegiance to a country. I mean, we knew that. And the special ops people said, it gets worse every day. It doesn't get better. Every mission was worse. We used to drive from Kabul to Bagram. After I went back the second time, hell, we couldn't do that. Everything got so bad. Everything got bad.

I just -- and I've got to tell this -- it drives me absolutely insane to see the television at night and see the Taliban and all of them wearing our uniforms, wearing our night vision, doing everything, using everything that we, have our MRAPs and everything else that we left, I just can't believe it. I can't even get an accounting of how much equipment we really did leave. I know how many aircraft we left and I know how many basically MRAPs and all the different things but not to plan better to take that equipment out was unbelievable.

AUSTIN: I would just flag (ph) for you, Senator, that all of the equipment that we had, that we used was retrograded by General Miller as a part of the drawdown. Thousands of tons of equipment and whatever high-end equipment that we had that we were using. The equipment that -- that the -- that the Afghan Security Forces had as the Taliban took over is the equipment that -- that you see. And, of course, all of the helicopters that were left on the airfield at HKIA, I asked General McKenzie to demilitarize those so that they couldn't ever be used again. And so we took -- we retrograded all our equipment that we were supposed to retrograde as we drew down.

MANCHIN: The only thing I could say in finishing up is that I would hope that God would bless America to have the intelligence not to repeat what we continually have seen doesn't work. And with you all, expertise you have and all the knowledge you're gaining from all this, please, please, help us from ever, ever repeating what we've done.

REED: Thank you, Senator Manchin. Senator Scott, please?

SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): Thank you, Chairman.

First of all, I want to thank each of you for being here. General Milley, one thing I hope at some point that you'll address is the content of your calls with regard to the Chinese and whether you -- you know, what's been alleged is that you would warn them if there was going to be an attack. Also, address whether there was any intelligence indicating that the Chinese were actually nervous.

One thing that surprised me about what's been going on the last few months is that the president has absolutely blamed everyone else but himself for the botched withdrawal of Afghanistan. He is the president of the United States. He has the ability to make these decisions. He can take all the advice he wants but he gets to make the final decisions. He's blamed previous administrations. He's blamed the people in Afghanistan. He's blamed the military in Afghanistan, which I think is absolutely disingenuous. The people in the White House have even blamed our own military.

Secretary Austin, some things you've said today actually surprised me. You said you were ready. You said you exceeded expectations. You said our credibility is solid and you've said that the president followed your advice on the evacuation. Let me just ask you, the first question is do you still believe that the most effective withdrawal strategy involves extracting the military, abandoning our military installations and reducing our use of force and ability to use force before we got our civilians out?

AUSTIN: Thanks, Senator. First of all, the plan was to -- the decision was to -- was to end our military operations and draw down all of our forces and retrograde all of our equipment, and that was accomplished. General Miller, I think, put together a great plan and execute that had plan in accordance with the plan.

Also a key part of the plan was to maintain an embassy in Kabul. And maintaining that embassy would allow us to continue to engage the government, to continue to provide resources to support the Afghan security forces.