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Milley Acknowledges Interviews with Multiple Book Authors; Senators Grill Top Military Leaders on Chaotic Afghanistan Exit. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 28, 2021 - 12:00   ET




LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: So it was -- the plan was to leave diplomatic presence here. And in conjunction with that plan, we also were going to leave a small military force there to help secure the Embassy. So that was the plan, Senator.

SEN. RICK SCOTT (R-FL): But you didn't address the issue that you made all these - it was your plan. You either acknowledge it was your plan. And your plan said you would do all these things before we got our civilians out, I mean, when in the history of this country, have we ever had the U.S. military say, and have a plan that we will take our military out first, before we take our civilians? I can't imagine that.

AUSTIN: When you when you say civilians, are you are you? Are you talking about American citizens?


AUSTIN: Now, the American citizens would come out once a noncombatant evacuation is declared. And until that point, you're typically we don't evacuate all the citizens in the country.

SCOTT: But we didn't hear - there are American systems still there.

AUSTIN: And we continue to remain engaged and work to get those citizens out Senator.

SCOTT: Why would you propose a plan that didn't get all American citizens out? I just can't imagine ever in the history of this country, our U.S. military would propose to leave a country without our citizens coming out first. I mean, has we - have we ever done that before?

AUSTIN: All of the American citizens wouldn't leave Senator unless there was a noncombatant evacuation. And you know that the plan was to leave the Embassy there to continue to address the needs of our American citizens to engage with the government.

And so that was a part of the plan, not again, the plan was never to evacuate the American citizens and leaving Embassy there. SCOTT: Didn't bother you, when the president went on national television said that he would not leave until all American citizens were taken out. Did it bother you that when he said that, because it clearly is not true - it was not truthful?

AUSTIN: Senator, I, you know, you've heard me say several times that we're going to work as hard as we can, for as long as we can to get every American citizen out that wants to come out and when we continue to do that to this day.

SCOTT: I'm running out of time, but one thing I want when we have next round, I want to understand what decisions you would make differently today to save those 13 lives of servicemen and women that we lost at the Kabul Airport. So thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, JOINT CHIEF OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: Senator, if I could comment on your first opening comment, if I may.

SCOTT: Go ahead, sir.

MILLEY: I'm sure that I am happy to lay out every detail in all the Intel to you as an individual to any other member, or to a committee or anything you want on these Chinese calls at your convenience happy to do it.

SCOTT: Thank you.

SEN. JACK REED (D-RI): Thank you, Senator Scott. Senator Duckworth, please.

SEN. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (D-IL): Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I share my colleagues concerns about the rapid collapse of the Afghan national defense and security forces and the Afghan government and the failure of our intelligence, we need some answers.

After investing two decades, nearly $2 trillion and most importantly, the lives of almost 2500 of American troops our nation must conduct a thorough and honest review of the United States government's involvement in Afghanistan since September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.

For the sake of current and future generations of warfighters, we must capture the hard lessons from Afghanistan to ensure that these lessons are not forgotten or worse, repeated on a future battlefield. This is our moral responsibility as a nation.

Gentlemen, all three of you have been involved in the war in Afghanistan multiple times in multiple different capacities throughout your careers. Secretary Austin, was the situation on the ground in Afghanistan over the last few months, influenced by previous decisions made over the course of several years?

AUSTIN: I absolutely believe that, Senator I - foremost among those decisions is the Doha agreement. I think that that is severely impacted the morale of the military. DUCKWORTH: Thank you. Secretary Austin, if that's the case, is it possible to have an intellectually honest, lessons learned exercise that only looks at the most recent events in Afghanistan of the last couple of months or most any effective review? Look at the whole 20 years since September 11th.

AUSTIN: I think you have to look at the entire 20 years. Senator, I think there's some great lessons learned that that we're going to take away once we do that. But yes, I believe you got to look at the entire time span.

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. I agree that an effective review must be comprehensive. After all, the war in Afghanistan was shaped by four different administrations and 11 different congresses. No party should be looking to score cheap partisan political points off a multi decade nation building failure that was bipartisan in the making.


DUCKWORTH: Instead, Congress should authorize a long term effort solely devoted to bringing accountability and transparency to the Afghanistan war and lessons to be learned. That is why on Thursday, I will be introducing the Afghanistan war study commission.

My bill would establish a bipartisan independent commission to examine every aspect of the war, including the political and strategic decisions that transformed a focused military mission into vast nation building campaign.

Importantly, this commission was produce actionable recommendations designed to guide the development of real reforms, just as the 9/11 commission's work informed congressional lawmaking efforts in the years after its publication.

Secretary Austin, would you agree with me that such an independent, long term study could serve as an effective complimentary effort to the more targeted lessons learned reviews that DOD always conducts, particularly in shedding light on how Congress and civilian leaders from multiple government agencies can do a better job in defining the scope of military missions, and actually enforcing legal limitations on the use of force?

AUSTIN: I would and I did. The point that you're making it needs to - my view is it needs to be an interagency approach to this.

DUCKWORTH: Thank you. And I do want to note that my family and I were in Cambodia, until the very end, I'm an American. I was born in Thailand, but my father worked for the United Nations. And to answer my colleagues' question, my father chose to stay as long as possible to help the Cambodian people as long as possible.

And he left after American troops had left. The American Ambassador stayed behind after American troops have left. And in fact, after the last military transport had left, I know this because my father was on the last military transport to leave Cambodia, and the ambassador had to travel overland. So yes, we do leave Americans behind. But this is all tied to - operations and how that is planned, which is why I think it is so important that we have an independent investigation. Maybe the failure here was that we didn't have a - plan in place, and we didn't activate it before all of our troops left.

But if that's the case, we need to learn that. So I would ask for my colleagues who consider this independent commission, we put somebody in charge of it, who is not in a decision making capacity during the 20 years, make it - make it nonpartisan, and let's get those lessons learned so that we don't make the same mistakes over and over again.

Our troops deserve better and the families of the 2500 American troops who laid down their lives to protect and defend this constitution who followed the lawful order of all of those presidents. They deserve better than partisan fights. We need to get some real answers. Thank you. I yield back Mr. Chairman.

REED: Thank you, Senator Duckworth. Now I'd like to recognize Senator Blackburn.

SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Gentlemen, we thank you all for being here with us today. As you've heard from all of us, the American people Tennesseans want some answers. They deserve to hear your testimony.

And I think it is unacceptable that this is the first time that I'm hearing from you in any forum despite attempts at outreach by both me and my staff. Save a few short all Senator phone calls that we have had and I want to emphasize all of us here every one of us answer to the American people, and they deserve transparency and information regarding this administration's botched in disgraceful withdrawal.

Tennesseans are really angry. And as you know, General Milley, Tennessee is home to the - airborne, one of the most deployed divisions in the U.S. military were also home to the specialized 1/60 soar, who were among the last on the ground extracting U.S. citizens from danger in Kabul.

Tennessee National Guard units have deployed to Afghanistan at - operational tempo, as well as providing vital logistical services such as refueling. We are home to more than 400,000 veterans, many of whom have lasting physical and psychological wounds from the time they have spent in service.

And Tennesseans are heartbroken over the loss of one of our own staff Sergeant Ryan Knauss a patriotic American who represented the best of all of us. In the August 26th, suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport he made the ultimate sacrifice.

And so how did we get here? And how did we get to what has been a complete letdown to most Tennesseans? I've got a few questions. These are yes or no questions so quick answers are appreciated.

[12:10:00] BLACKBURN: General Milley was there options given for keeping American troops in Afghanistan rather than the unconditional chaotic withdrawal?


BLACKBURN: You presented options and those options were declined?

MILLEY: There were options presented and debated.

BLACKBURN: Yes or no?

MILLEY: The decision was made.

BLACKBURN: Yes, sir. Yes or no is fine. Did you at any point create options for keeping Bagram open beyond July 2nd?


BLACKBURN: Did you provide options for keeping Bagram open directly to the president?


BLACKBURN: Had Bagram stayed open with our support to the Afghan Air Force have been more effective in your view?

MILLEY: I'm sorry. I didn't catch the last part.

BLACKBURN: If Bagram had stayed open, would our support to the Afghan Air Force have been more effective in your view? Yes or no?

MILLEY: Frankly, I'm not sure on that one because most of the Afghan Air Force was a different basis specifically at pie.

BLACKBURN: President Biden keeps calling it an extraordinary just extraordinary success. We've discussed some of this today is leaving Americans behind an extraordinary success in your view, Secretary Austin?

AUSTIN: We're not leaving Americans fine.

BLACKBURN: Yes or no is fine. Is the killing of 13 American servicemen and women while trying to secure a chaotic evacuation of the president's own making an extraordinary success?

AUSTIN: The loss of any civilian life is always tragic --

BLACKBURN: The fact that we failed to evacuate most of our Afghan partners in extraordinary success are the fact that we have Afghans bringing child brides people who are hardly vetted? Is that an extraordinary success?

AUSTIN: Again, these are issues that we continue to work to get our American citizens out and Afghans to help those -- BLACKBURN: Let me move on. Per Article II of the Constitution, the president may require the opinion in writing of the principal officer in each of the executive departments. Did the president ever require our request written recommendations related to the withdrawal of the Afghan forces yes or no Secretary Austin then General Milley then General McKenzie, yes or no?

AUSTIN: We provided - I provided our input as a part of a policy process that was very well and deliberately weren't run.

BLACKBURN: Nope that you didn't completely answer that, General Milley any written form?


BLACKBURN: Would you make those available to us?

MILLEY: Make it available to the committee upon request in accordance with appropriate classifications?

BLACKBURN: We will - we will do so, General McKenzie, yes or no?


BLACKBURN: Each of you had committed to make those available when you went through your confirmation processes. We'll come back to you for those. General Milley yes or no to this, did you talk to Bob Woodward or Robert Costa for their book "Peril"?

MILLEY: Woodward, yes Costa, no.

BLACKBURN: Did you talk to Carol - and Philip Rucker for their book "Alone: Can I fix it?


BLACKBURN: Did you talk to Michael Bender for his book is "Frankly we did win this election the inside story of how Trump lost?"


BLACKBURN: And were you accurately represented in these books?

MILLEY: I haven't read any of the books. So I don't know. I've seen press reporting of it. I haven't read the book.

BLACKBURN: Let's have you read the books and then let us know if you are accurately predicted and portrayed.

MILLEY: Happy to do that.

REED: Senator Blackburn you're into the five minute rule.

BLACKBURN: I yield back my time.

REED: Thank you. Senator Rosen, please. SEN. JACKY ROSEN (D-NV): Thank you, Chairman Reed and Ranking Member Inhofe for holding today's very important hearing. A critical part of this committee's oversight responsibilities. It's an opportunity for the American people to get answers about our withdrawal from Afghanistan and how we plan to counter terrorist threats in the future.

I also want to sincerely thank the brave men and women who served our country in Afghanistan, many who made the ultimate sacrifice and of course their families as well. Secretary Austin, General Milley and General McKenzie, I appreciate you all being here to address lingering concerns we have about the last two decades of war, generally and the past two months in particular.

You are all men of honor and integrity who have served our country nobly and I so look forward to your candid responses to my questions, even if they require admitting that in some cases, serious mistakes were made.

Like all Senate offices as the Taliban approached Kabul and eventually took over the city and the country. My team and I worked to help vulnerable individuals evacuate.


ROSEN: These were people who in many cases have the State Department's approval to leave Afghanistan for the U.S. or third party country, but due to crowds, Taliban checkpoints are legitimate fear of being killed along the way. They could just not physically get to a gate to present their paperwork.

No matter how many times they tried, or no matter how long they waited. My office worked with CENTCOM and the Afghanistan task force to try to coordinate opportunities just to grab these people from the crowd so they could present their paperwork and flee to safety. But unfortunately, again, these efforts were to no avail.

As these individuals continue to wait for help that may never come. I remained frustrated that the U.S. did not set up a perimeter around Kabul or at the very least create a safe corridor for the S1 visa holders for the air - to get to the airport for their families, potential asylum seekers who were attempting to escape a near certain death.

So continued support General Milley. I appreciate the State Department now taking the lead on evacuations. But like our military, the State Department no longer has any presence in the ground in Afghanistan.

So I'd like to ask you, sir, does the U.S. military's recent experience facilitating the evacuation from Kabul give you the confidence that the Taliban will be honest brokers and working with our diplomats to help vulnerable Afghan nationals leave the country?

MILLEY: I think that what we've seen so far since the 31st is some Americans have gotten out through diplomatic means. And they have reached safety through either overland routes or through aircraft. I don't know all the details, but I can't imagine that that didn't happen without Taliban facilitation.

ROSEN: Well, we can get back to Afghan nationals, helping them leave the country as well, those SIV holders and others who supported us. But Secretary Austin, the administration has said they'll utilize every tool available to hold the Taliban accountable, but they failed to meet their commitments to provide safe passage for anyone who wants to leave the country.

Certainly, we know their economic levers. But can you elaborate on what the military tools are? And could there be a shared interest in targeting ISIS-K.

AUSTIN: In terms of military tools, Senator, as you know, we have the ability to opt to offer a range of options, depending on what you know, the president's objectives are. So we can do most anything that's required of us.

And because we have substantial resources, but in terms of our cooperation with the Taliban against counter ISIS-K, I won't venture to make any comments on that, I would just say that we have coordinated some things that are very narrow in scope with them to get our people out, as you know, and to continue to further evaluate American citizens.

But I won't - I won't - I don't - I don't think it's right to make assumptions to broader and bigger things from that coordination. They are still the Taliban.

ROSEN: Thank you. I just like to, in a few seconds, I have left and we can take these second round or off the record, future counterterrorism operations. We have to reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and our assets in the region, of course, as we move to an over the horizon scenario.

So Secretary Austin and General McKenzie, and we'll take these in the second round. Think about like the answer to what is the plan for an enduring counter strategy - as counterterrorism strategy is going to be able to address and counter the influence of the violent extremist organizations in Afghanistan. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

REED: Thank you, Senator Rosen. Senator Hawley, please.

SEN. JOSH HAWLEY (R-MO): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Let me just sum up where I understand that that we are based on what's been a fairly extraordinary hearing. Here's what I've learned so far.

Number one, President of the United States lied to the American people about the advice that you gave to him about the military judgment that you've provided for him. I think you've all testified to that effect now repeatedly.

Secondly, the State Department and maybe the White House appeared to push back the evacuation to such a time that it became a catastrophe, apparently against your advice, although I'd like to learn more about that. And third, for some reasons, we still don't quite understand the Pentagon failed to plan for the potential collapse of the security forces or the collapse of the Afghan government despite there being quite a lot of warnings.

Senator Kane refer to this earlier, quite a lot of warning for really, frankly, years that the Afghan security forces were ill equipped, Ill trained and frankly, not up to the job. I don't understand any of that. I'd like to explore those things with you in this round and the next.

But first before I do, Secretary Austin I have to take issue with something you just said. I know this is an administration talking point. I've heard it out of the mouth of the press secretary and others.


HAWLEY: We are not leaving Americans behind. That was your quote of just a minute ago. With all due respect, sir, you have left past tense Americans behind. We have no presence any longer in Afghanistan, there were hundreds of American and not just Americans, generally, civilians, and you left behind.

Against the president's explicit commitment not to leave until all American citizens were out and to safety. That is not what happened. And now we have people who are desperately frantically trying to get out of this country, coming to me coming to members of this committee asking for help, they can't get that help.

They're stuck behind enemy lines. So please don't tell me that we're not leaving Americans behind. You left them behind. Joe Biden left them behind. And frankly, it was a disgrace. Let me ask you this, though.

AUSTIN: Thanks for your help and continuing to help get American citizens and Afghans who have helped us out of the country. But as you've seen, we've continued to facilitate --

HAWLEY: Well, actually I didn't ask you a question but since you seem to want to address the issue. So since you do, isn't it true that you've left Americans behind on August the 31st?

AUSTIN: There are Americans - there were Americans there were still in in Afghanistan, and still are. We continue to work to try to get those Americans out.

HAWLEY: Yep that that's a yes. Let's not repeat, please the frankly false so that we didn't leave Americans behind. Let me ask you this. General - Secretary Austin, you said you've alluded to several times the fact that the military was ready you say this in your prepared remarks by late April, you say military planners who crafted a number of evacuation scenarios you referred later, in your marks to the fact that you were waiting for the State Department to make a decision about evacuations. NBC News is reporting this morning that the military wanted to begin evacuations earlier. But the State Department and the White House intervened and by May 8th said no, we're delaying the evacuation of our civilians. Can you just help us get to the truth here? Was it your judgment and opinion that the evacuations of civilians should have begun before the middle of August?

AUSTIN: We provided our input to the State Department. Again, it is a call of the State Department to --

HAWLEY: I understand that. I understand that Secretary. I'm asking for what your judgment was. And I'm asking specifically about your testimony, that in April, you develop evacuation scenarios. And this is reported by multiple sources this morning in the news.

So I just wonder, as of late April, was it? Was it your opinion that the evacuations of civilians should begin - should have begun before - should begin earlier than they did it?

AUSTIN: We provided input to try to get out as many Afghans who have helped us along the way, as you know, as early as possible. But again, the State Department, as you know, made its decisions based upon the fact that even President Ghani had engaged them and said, hey, we're very concerned about you know, the mass exodus of civilians from the from the country.

HAWLEY: Le me, General Milley let me - let me direct this to you. Did you - did you ever advise in the interagency process that the rapid withdrawal timeline that the White House the Pentagon signed off on General Miller proposed in fact they're getting us to zero by the middle of July that that would negatively impact any effort to get out our civilians?

In other words, if we dropped down to zero by July, if we then had a civilian evacuation order, we'd be in a lot of trouble. Did you ever - did you ever advise to that, to that effect during the interagency process? Did you warn about that possibility of drawing down so quickly before a civilian evacuation was underway?

MILLEY: Yes, but it's more complicated in that. The drawdown of the forces under Miller that is - those guys are advisors. They're not the Neo kind of guys. The Neo troops are Marine Expeditionary Unit special purpose mag to have elements of the 82nd Airborne Division. That's what you need in order to do the Neo.

Those are the plans I believe that the Secretary is referring to that were developed early on. And there are specific triggers that are required in the State Department calls the time of the Neo. Secretary, in fact, on the 12th of August, started pushing forward forces in orders and on the 14th, the Ambassador - Ambassador 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. But the April piece and the drawdown of the advisors, that's a separate and distinct task. And the retrograde of those forces, those 2500 devices weren't the guys bringing up the American citizens anyway.

Those were the advisors to the Afghan security forces. There were concerns that we raised throughout the interagency, that when those advisors - if the advisors were to stay then there's the possibility that you know the Afghan security forces would hang in there.


MILLEY: We all knew that when we pull the advisors out, when we pull the money out that at some point in the future, most said it was in the fall, that the Afghan security forces were going to fracture and the government would collapse.

The speed at which that happens in August is a different animal. The advisors are already gone by mid-July, there is still a government there is still an Afghan army. And the assumption was that it would remain and the mission was to keep the Embassy open, secure the Embassy, transition that off to contractors, and then all the military be out and it'd be a diplomatic mission and to be money and over the horizon thought.

None of that happened because that army and that government collapsed very rapidly. As soon as those indicators came a fracture, Secretary Austin, and others throughout the government executed and implemented a neo-plan, for which there was contingencies that were built.

That was a plan for a rapid collapse. And that was the neo-plan that General McKenzie had come up with. And that's what was executed. That's why those 6000 troops could deploy as rapidly as they did. That's why all those aircraft showed up. That wasn't done without planning that was done with planning.

And that was done at - from an operational and tactical standpoint, that was a success strategically, strategically, the wars lost the enemies in Kabul so that you have a strategic failure while simultaneously having operational and strategic and operational tactical success by the soldiers on the ground.

So I think we're conflating some things that we need to separate in this after action review process so that we clearly understand what exactly happened, and I'm sorry for taking all that time, but I thought it was necessary.

REED: Thank you, Senator Hawley. Senator Kelly, please.

SEN. MARK KELLY (D-AZ): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Secretary, let me begin by expressing my gratitude to each of the over 800,000 Americans, many of them Arizona's who served in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, and to their families.

I also commend our service members' support of one of the largest air lifts in our country's history. We will never forget the achievements of the men and women who worked 24 seven in Kabul managed impossible conditions on the ground, and above all, those who made the ultimate sacrifice, protecting innocent civilians. 124,000 people are safe today because of American troops, and diplomats. Still, after decades of conflict, 2500 American soldiers killed and billions invested in security cooperation. The American people deserve to know why the Afghan government and security forces collapsed in a matter of days.

And how there was a failure to prepare for this scenario and ensure that our people were out of the country before it fell? And I think we've established here that the withdrawal and evacuation did not account for real world conditions, and that the intelligence was flawed.

The United States wields incredible power as a global leader. And our accountability must match our influence for our national security. And for each of those who served in Afghanistan during our longest war, we must understand what happened, but also look forward to ensure that our posture allows us to provide for our national security and prevent Afghanistan's use as a base for terrorist activity.

So I want to transition and look forward and not ask you questions that you've already answered. General McKenzie, America's Armed Forces have been on the frontlines fighting terrorists for the past 20 years. During this time, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have been degraded.

While our military presence in Afghanistan has ended our commitment to fighting terrorism has not. With our withdrawal complete, the Afghan government collapse and the Taliban seeking to fill the power vacuum left behind how is central command postured to prevent terrorist organizations from gaining strength in the region?

MCKENZIE: Senator, probably the details of this would be best left to the classified session, which we'll have later this afternoon. But I will tell you that - I that - I have today, headquarters that has the ability to look into Afghanistan - at limited, and we have the ability to fuse the different disciplines of intelligence to look particularly at ISIS-K and Al Qaeda.

We are still refining that the best practice is on that. But we do have a way forward. I've told this committee before; it is very hard to do this. It is not impossible to do this.

KELLY: Well. I'm looking forward to seeing those details in the closed hearing. Are you confident, confident that we can deny organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS the ability to use Afghanistan as a launch pad for terrorist activity?