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Top Generals Testifying About U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired March 19, 2024 - 13:30   ET



BORIS SANCHEZ CNN HOST: Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, we have to leave the conversation there. Very much appreciate your time.


SANCHEZ: We want to go straight to the Capitol Hill now where there is a hearing underway on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Here's the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, speaking to Congress right now.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, FORMER CHAIRMAN, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: Congress -- lost limbs and were grievously wounded. And you did it's selflessly with professionalism, courage, compassion and with great sacrifice.

And finally, to the Gold Star families that are here with us today and those that could make it, there's nothing that I can say or do that's going to fill that gaping hole in your heart.

But as I've told you before, I'm committed and I will honor that commitment to get you the answers, to get you to the truth. And I will personally, and I know everyone else will as well, honor your sacrifice and the sacrifice of your loved one.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I look forward to your questions.

REP. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-TX) & CHAIRMAN: Thank you, General Milley.

I now recognize General McKinzie for his opening statement.


And I'd like to just open --


MCCAUL: -- microphone.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGRESSMAN: I'd like to ask that this opening statement be submitted for the record.

MCCAUL: Objections? So ruled. MCKENZIE: Chairman McCaul, Ranking Member Mace, distinguished members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I'm here to voluntarily testified today about the military component of our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Before I begin, I'd like to recognize the Gold Star families that are here today. I hope that what we discuss today will reduce their pain. I, like General Milley, I'm humbled to be in their presence here today.

As you are aware, in September 2021, I provided over 10 hours of open and closed testimony on the subject to the two congressional committees charged with oversight of military operations, the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Much of my testimony will be of necessity -- will, of necessity, mirror that earlier transcribed testimony.

As a theater commander, I will confine my opening remarks to those matters that we're under my direct operational control, specifically the withdrawal of U.S. military forces and the subsequent noncombatant evacuation operation or NEO.

These we're two distinct and separate operations. We had detailed constantly updated plans for each of them. We executed both of those plans, although separated in time.

And thanks to the valor and dedication of thousands of men and women in harm's way, we completed both missions, but not without loss of life.

We honor the 13 brave Americans who died at Abbey Gate, joining the over 2,400 other servicemembers who lost their lives in his 20-year campaign.

Their sacrifice stands with those of our coalition partners and, of course, the Afghans who fought beside us for so many years.

I briefed President Trump on a plan to completely depart Afghanistan on 3 June 2020. This plan envisioned the complete withdrawal of all our forces and our diplomats and citizens.

It also contemplated the possible withdrawal of Afghans who had served with us.

The plan had a number of options, but it was the framework for everything that followed. Ultimately, President Trump selected a branch of the plan that maintained 2,500 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan by Inauguration Day in January 2021.

We had branches to that plan to complete a withdrawal by May of 2021, had we been so ordered.

On 11 April 2021, I received orders and President Biden through the secretary of defense to execute a full military withdrawal by 11 September 2021, a date which was subsequently modified to the end of August.

This decision did not include the withdrawal of our embassy, our citizens, and at-risk Afghans. It's important to understand that we had a complete plan to execute that task as well but were not ordered to do so.

The president's decision was to maintain an embassy to not require our citizens to leave. And of course, to not expedite the extraction of at-risk Afghans. This was not a military decision.

We substantially accomplished the military withdrawal by 12 July 2021, when I relieved General Scott Miller as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

My orders then were to retain a military platform of 650 personnel solely designed to provide security for the U.S. embassy and Karzai International Airport.

During this period and with minimal to no support from us, the Afghan security forces and, more importantly, the government of Afghanistan crumbled in the face of Taliban pressure.

Orders to commence the noncombatants evacuation operation, bringing out our embassy, our citizens, and at-risk Afghans, we're received on 14 August.

These dates are important because I believe that the events of mid- and late-August of 2021 were the direct result of delaying the initiation of the NEO for several months. In fact, until we were in extremis and the Taliban had overrun the country.

As you are aware, the decision to begin an NEO rests with the Department of State, not the Department of Defense.

Despite this, we had begun positioning forces in the region as early as 9 July, but we could do nothing -- nothing to commence the operation, the evacuation until the NEO was declared.


Our operations at Karzai International from 14 August through our ultimate departure on early 31 August, we're both heroic and tragic. This was a combat operation of the most difficult sort, carried out in contact with the enemy.

We eventually put 5,784 U.S. troops, almost 2,000 more coalition and other forces, eight U.S. maneuver battalions on the ground at Karzai International.

I'd like to talk a little bit now about Abbey Gate. It was a tragic event, one of many that have occurred over a 20-year engagement in Afghanistan. It remains my opinion that if there is culpability in this attack, it lies and policy decisions that created the environment of August 2021 in Kabul.

Culpability and responsibility do not lie with the troops on the ground who perform magnificently. It does not lie with a platoon, company or battalion commanders or the flag officers who oversaw operations on the ground in Kabul.

The simple fact is this. On the battlefield, even with good planning, tremendous execution by brave people on the ground, the enemy sometimes has success. To ignore this fact is to ignore the fundamental reality of the battlefield.

If there's fault, it lies in a policy decision that placed the joint force in this situation and exposed the force over time to the possibility of these kinds of attacks.

We did not rely on the Taliban for our security. We use them as one tool among many to beef up our defensive posture. We avoided a number of potential Abbey Gate attacks.

And I'm proud of the commanders and troops who prevented them. This is a small comfort to those who lost loved ones and I realize this.

Nonetheless, what's remarkable about Kabul is not that the tragedy of Abbey Gate happened, but that many other attacks did not happen.

I'll end my statement with this observation. I was the overall commander and I and I alone bear full military responsibility for what happened at Abbey Gate.

Thank you, Chairman. I'm ready for questions.

MCCAUL: Thank you, General McKenzie.

I now recognize myself for questions.

We have Sergeant Tyler Vargas Andrews here today?

I want to thank you, sir, for your service and your courage for testifying before this committee almost a year ago to the day.

He was a sniper at Abbey Gate and testified to us that he had the suicide bomber in his sights, that identified -- was identified on the "be on the lookout."

He sent the sniper photos and other related documents to his commanding officer for permission to engage the suicide bomber. Yet, that warning was ignored. He never heard back.

I and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, after that testimony, sent a letter to the Department of Defense requesting that these documents and sniper photos be delivered to the Congress, produced to the Congress by this document, this letter request.

To date, that has been ignored. The Department of Defense has refused.

We've also requested the testimonies of General Chris Donahue and Admiral Peter Vasely, who were the commanding officers on the ground during the Abbey Gate disaster. To both of you, to General Milley, do you think that these documents should be turned over to the United States Congress? And do you think that both General Donoghue and Admiral Vasely should testify before Congress?

MILLEY: Sure. I absolutely do. I believe transparency -- you're the board of directors for this corporation called the American government. And I believe that you're entitled to those within the bounds of classification. Absolutely.

So whatever documents are out there should be turned over to the appropriate committees of jurisdiction and oversight and whatever witnesses are needed to establish truth and transparency within the bounds of classification. Absolutely. Absolutely. That's why I'm here.

MCCAUL: Thank you.


MCKENZIE: Chairman. I agree with General Milley and I associate myself with his remarks.

MCCAUL: So also, on accountability, I've asked State Department officials, who was responsible for the catastrophic emergency evacuation? Not surprisingly, they point their fingers at the Department of Defense.

But I want to set the record straight. While the DOD helps conduct the emergency evacuation, it's the State Department that is responsible, under law, for developing the plan and leading the evacuation. Is that your understanding?

MILLEY: Yes. The State Department is lead federal agency for planning and execution, oversight of the execution of the noncombative operation.

MCCAUL: And the Department of Defense is in support of, and other departments are in support of the State Department. The state, province, lead federal agency for NEOs.


MILLEY: That's correct.

MCCAUL: General McKenzie?

MCKENZIE: I agree with that.

MCCAUL: It's the State Department responsible under law, again, for requesting the emergency evacuation. Is that correct?

MILLEY: That is correct. And I think, actually, I think that's done at the ambassadorial level, to tell the truth. I'd have to check the law, but I think the ambassador can make the decision to execute a NEO, but typically it'll be to him or the secretary of state.

MCCAUL: And did the State Department, specifically Embassy Kabul, have an evacuation plan for Afghanistan?

MCKENZIE: So, Chairman, every -- every embassy has an evacuation plan for Afghanistan. And Embassy Kabul had -- had a plan, had what we would call an F77 list, which is the list of U.S. citizens and their families that are in the country.

And we struggled to gain access to that plan and work with them over the -- the months of July until we finally got a decision to execute the NEO, which as I've already mentioned, occurred on the 14th of August.

Now we worked with the embassy before then, but we didn't have authority to move out and do the things that you have to do to make a NEO happen until the 14th of July -- a correction, the 14th of August.

And as I noted, we we're in extremis at that point.

MCCAUL: And August 14th, just days before the fall of Kabul and the evacuation of the embassy, August 14th is when they finally put forward this plan?

MCKENZIE: And that's when we got authority to execute the --

MCCAUL: That's when you got authority. And you urged the White House and State Department to put pen to paper to develop a plan to get Americans and our Afghan allies out of Afghanistan, correct?

MCKENZIE: Yes, I did. In fact, I was concerned by the middle of July. I was concerned about the different pace of Department of Defense planning as compared to Department of State planning.

And I took an opportunity then to make representations to the secretary about my concern over that, the fact that we were moving pretty fast on this. They we're not moving fast and I was concerned that we we're going to arrive at different locations just based on it.

And I went to the secretary, we spent some time talking about that, and actually followed up with a written -- with a written ideal and some things that we could do. Sent a letter with 10 recommendations to the secretary of defense on that.

MCCAUL: Is it that you --

SANCHEZ: We've been listening to former CENTCOM commander, General Kenneth McKenzie, and his testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan.

McCaul, in his latest set of questions, making clear that he's putting the State Department at the center of some of the failures associated with the withdrawal.

I will, of course, continue to monitor these questions for two important former generals in the United States services.

We're going to take a quick break and we'll be back in just moments.



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Let's listen back again to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

MILLEY: Prior to retirement, Chairman McCaul asked me, would you be willing to discuss with the committee? I said absolutely, yes. No threat to subpoena, no compulsory, nothing. I said, yes.

I saw Chairman McCaul again after retirement and he reminded me of that conversation. I said, sure, absolutely.

So in January and February of this year, we worked out some of the details. I said I wanted to go back and review records, et cetera.

And then it was originally supposed to be a closed classified hearing because -- and I still think we're going to do one of those after this. And I thought that was important to be a classified hearing because a lot of information is still classified.

And then there was a discussion of a public hearing.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D-NY) & RANKING MEMBER: Right. So you know, just speaking of that, when you test - before -- you've testified before. You testified before the Armed Services Committee. Is that correct?

MILLEY: Testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in both classified and open hearings. And then have testified about Afghanistan in several other testimonies that weren't specifically --


MEEKS: -- like General McKenzie?

MILLEY: That's correct?

MEEKS: And is your testimony -- has anything changed from when you were in uniform and testifying to what you've testified today? Has there anything that you didn't testify to before that you're testifying to now?

Is there any change as you thought of what took place today from what you testified to previously?

MILLEY: In general, for me, everything that I testified before is still true and accurate today. And in open testimony, that that would be correct.

I have learned more from -- about Abbey Gate because of the investigations. That wasn't available during previous testimonies. For me, it wasn't.

But I have since read those investigations and been briefed on them, but they weren't available at the first time. MEEKS: So your testimony to date is still basically consistent in --


MILLEY: Totally consistent.

MEEKS: General McKenzie?

MCKENZIE: That's the same for me.

MEEKS: Thanks.

So there's not really anything new that was learned today because you testified to it before, right?

MILLEY: I'll leave that to you all to determine if there's anything new --

MEEKS: I'm just asking you, from your testimony, from what you -- what has been made public, and what has been public, is basically -- this is not something --


MCKENZIE: Ranking Member, as I mentioned in my opening statement, much of what I say today is going to mirror the 10 hours that --



MEEKS: That's my point. I get this is not anything groundbreaking or anything that is being discovered newly. This is something that has been out in the public from the time that you testified back in 2022, 2022, right?

Nothing groundbreaking here.

The fact of the matter is -- let me ask this question.

I think maybe it was you, General Milley, said that the framework for what took place during the 20 years.

Because I think that we should be looking at if we really want to figure out what went wrong, what we need to fix, we need to look at the entire 20 years of being in Afghanistan, not just the last few months.

Would you say that's correct?

MILLEY: Yes. And I said that before as we'll in previous testimony.

Now in the written remarks submitted for the record, I've elaborated on what I think or, say, top-10 lessons learned, but there's many more. You're not going to learn all of the lessons of a 20-year war in short sessions. But I think there's a huge amount of lessons to be learned over the course of 20 years.

You know, should we have gone after bin Laden in 2001 in the winter when we had -- we had him, more or less from an intel standpoint, we thought we him located. Should we? Could we have? Yes. Should we have? I think yes. In hindsight, that would change the trajectory of the whole war.

And there's a whole series of lessons along the way. Specific to this hearing and to help these families, I think the focus is more recent, relative to the withdrawal itself and the Abbey Gate and the NEO.

But you're correct. A holistic view, absolutely, I think. And that -- but that's going to take a considerable amount of time.

MEEKS: Would you say that the Doha agreement that was done under the Trump -- the Trump administration had some connection to the conditions on the ground when Joe Biden became president --

MILLEY: Of course --

MEEKS: -- and leading on up into -- to what took place at Abbey Gate? There was some -- there's a nexus. Is that not correct?

MILLEY: Yes. I think that the end game, if you will, the final months, I think the framework of that is set by the Doha agreement. Absolutely.

MEEKS: So if we've got to study to find out the findings of what we should do, we should be talking about what happened during the Trump administration as we'll as what took place during the Biden administration.

Because they are connected. They're not separate. So if we're serious about trying to figure out what took place and why it took place, we should be looking at both, what took place under the Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Trump administration and -- is that not correct?

MILLEY: Sure. As you point out, four presidents, I think there's half a dozen secretaries of defense, half-a-dozen secretaries of state, there's half it as in chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there's another four commanders in Afghan.

So, yes, there's absolutely lessons to be learned through all of this. And the endgame, using the Doha agreement, if you wanted to say that was the start point, sure, there's -- there's a lot to be said about that as we'll.

And there is a continuum. As I've mentioned in my opening statement, there's no phenomenon -


MILLEY: -- the end of war --


MEEKS: My point is this. If we're taking a serious look at this, you can't just take a peek at one little segment of it and say this is the reason everything happened without looking at what preceded it, because you'd have to look at it in its entirety. Isn't that correct?

If you're serious about trying to figure out how we're going to make sure the mistakes that may have made and the thing that we did right, you can only do that, in a serious investigation, if you take all of it and you look at all of it and you examine all of it, not just piecemealing that.

Would you agree with that?

MILLEY: Of course. I mean, I said that in my opening statement, said it in previous testimony that a holistic look at the whole war in order to really determine outcomes, et cetera.

And anything as complex as war is not the result of a single causal factor. There's multiple factors --


MILLEY: -- and decision.

So, yes, in general, I agree.

But I'm here for these families to try to get them answers and to try to get answers on the immediate issues that are at hand.

MEEKS: So I know -- I mean, I know saw the chairman went until -- just want to do the same amount of time that he had. I don't want to get cut off there.

So let me -- let me ask this. With the conclusion of the Doha deal, the Taliban stopped attacking U.S. forces inside Afghanistan. Is that correct?

MILLEY: Well, yes, lethal attacks. They weren't -- they committed to not doing that. There were some attacks, but they committed to not conducting lethal attacks. And by my memory, I don't think there was a lethal attack on U.S. forces --

MEEKS: So let me ask this. I'm running out of time. I know -- I saw the chairman finished it out with five minutes there.


So -- and the united -- when the United States committed to the Doha deal that was to withdraw, and I quote, "withdrawal from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting service personnel." Is that correct? That was the Doha deal, done under the Trump administration. Is that


MILLEY: As I recall, I think there was seven conditions the United States signed up to and eight conditions that the Taliban signed up to.

And I think you rattled off most of the key ones. It was a very explicit thing. It said you had to go from -- there we're 13,000 more or less, 13,000 U.S. troops when Doha was signed. And then you had to go to 8,600 in 135 days --


MEEKS: Let me just do this. I want to make sure. So therefore --

KEILAR: You are watching the House Foreign Affairs Committee, what is a very high-stakes hearing, as you have two now-civilians, but then- top generals who were obviously very involved as the Biden administration was overseeing what turned into a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

That came -- when it came to the withdrawal of a bunch of noncombatants, which is the chaos we saw at the airport there in Kabul, came much sooner than expected and obviously was very chaotic.

And ultimately, deadly for 13 servicemembers whose families are actually in the audience. They're in the gallery watching this hearing.

We're going to continue to monitor this as we look to see what retired Generals McKenzie and Milley are going to be saying as they are -- they're answering questions of lawmakers.

We'll be right back.