Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is being grilled by a Senate panel on Tuesday about the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and his conduct in the waning days of the Trump administration.
Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Marine who criticized Afghanistan withdrawal sentenced Air Force general becomes second woman to head US military command Military judge blasts Marine Corps's handling of officer who criticized Afghanistan withdrawal MORE and Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, are also facing questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Tuesday is the first of two days of hearings, with the group scheduled to sit before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday
Keep up with developments below.
Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyPentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability Biden's push for unity collides with entrenched partisanship The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike MORE (R-Mo.) told Milley and Austin he thinks they should resign.
In his remarks during the hearing's second round of questioning, Hawley attacked Milley for speaking to authors of political books, implying that he had prioritized being "favorably portrayed by the D.C. press corps."
"But at the same time, we had a rapidly deteriorating, frankly disastrous, situation in Afghanistan which resulted in the death of 13 soldiers including one from my home state. Hundreds of civilians and hundreds of Americans left behind. And in my view, that mission can't be called a success in any way shape or form logistical or otherwise," Hawley said.
"General, I think you should resign. Secretary Austin, I think you should resign. I think this mission was a catastrophe. I think there's no other way to say it, and there has to be accountability. I respectfully submit it should begin with you," he added.
Earlier in his testimony, Milley said "there's no way" that he would resign after his military advice wasn't heeded, pointing to soldiers, such as the 13 who were killed at the Kabul airport, who did not have the option of resigning.
"They can't resign so I'm not going to resign," he said.
- Joseph Choi
White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiPaid family leave is 'not a vacation,' Buttigieg says Biden struggles to rein in Saudi Arabia amid human rights concerns The Memo: Conservatives change their tune on big government MORE on Tuesday defended President BidenJoe BidenManchin lays down demands for child tax credit: report Abrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE’s previous comments about recommendations he received from military advisers on the Afghanistan drawdown, saying Biden received a range of opinions before deciding in April to withdraw all U.S. troops.
Psaki reiterated that Biden told ABC News last month that his advisers were “split” on whether to leave troops in Afghanistan.
“I think that’s a pretty key part of that phrasing there,” she said.
“There was a range of viewpoints, as was evidenced by their testimony today, that were presented to the president that were presented to his national security team, as would be expected, as he asked for,” Psaki told reporters during a briefing.
“It was also clear and clear to him that that would not be a longstanding recommendation, that there would need to be an escalation, an increase in troop numbers,” she continued. “It would also mean war with the Taliban and it would also mean the potential loss of casualties. The president was just not willing to make that decision. He didn’t think it was in the interest of the American people or the interest of our troops.”
Republicans have accused Biden of lying to the public in the August interview with ABC’s George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosBiden giving stiff-arm to press interviews Yellen confident of minimum global corporate tax passage in Congress Democratic lawmakers, Yellen defend Biden on the economy MORE, during which he denied reports that top generals recommended he leave 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
“No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden told Stephanopoulos, after saying his advisers were “split.”
During a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyRepublicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' We've left Afghanistan — but its consequences are just starting to arrive Key Iraq War strategist and former Army chief Raymond Odierno dies at 67 MORE, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that they recommended leaving 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
As she faced questions about the testimony Tuesday afternoon, Psaki declined to offer specific details when asked which of Biden’s advisers recommended he withdraw all U.S. troops. She emphasized repeatedly that the U.S. would have had to ramp up its military presence in Afghanistan if it remained engaged in the 20-year war, and that 2,500 troops wouldn’t have been a long-term solution.
“We’re talking about the initial phase, post May 1. We’re not talking about long term recommendations. There was no one who said, five years from now we could have 2,500 troops and that would be sustainable,” Psaki said.
She also noted that, regardless of the recommendations, it was ultimately Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) pressed Milley on his decision to speak with the authors of multiple political books, which the Joint Chiefs chairman disclosed earlier in his testimony.
"I deal with the media, routinely, two, three, four times a week. I'm talking to the media. And the media, whether it's books, TV news, reporters, we have a lot of media here ... I think it's very very important to make sure that senior officials talk to the media and all of its various forms in order to explain what we're doing," Milley told Scott.
Scott asked what the "upside" was for Milley to discuss "sensitive information" and the prior administration.
"I think it's important to make sure that the American people are transparent with what our government does. That's all. Nothing more complicated than that," Milley responded.
When Scott pointed out that some reporters have said that Milley shared his exact conversations with former President TrumpDonald TrumpRobert Gates says 'extreme polarization' is the greatest threat to US democracy Cassidy says he won't vote for Trump if he runs in 2024 Schiff says holding Bannon in criminal contempt 'a way of getting people's attention' MORE, going against what he said in his testimony of never sharing his conversations with presidents, he pushed back on that characterization.
"I'm not so sure about what they're reporting about what I said and private conversations, etc. I don't share private conversations with the president. With this president, former president, any president. Period," Milley said. "I don't even know what they've written. I haven't read their books, but I can tell you that I don't share my personal conversations with the president."
- Joseph Choi
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it is still "too early to tell" what effect the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan had on the terror threat against the United States.
"[It's] too early to tell," Milley said in response to a question from Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstDemocrat Mike Franken launches challenge to Grassley in Iowa Trump heads to Iowa as 2024 chatter grows Photos of the Week: Manchin, California oil spill and a podium dog MORE (R-Iowa). "I think we've got about, you know — to elaborate a little bit — probably got about six months here to really sort this out, to see which direction things are going to go. It's not much time, but that's my personal estimate, it could be out to 12. And then we're gonna have some indicators and warnings of what direction this is going to go, but that's where I'd put it."
- Joseph Choi
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Sept. 11 deadline for the withdrawal from Afghanistan was "not a military recommendation" after Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - House debt vote today; Biden struggles to unite Arkansas legislature splits Little Rock in move that guarantees GOP seats The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike MORE (R-Ark.) pressed Austin to say who suggested the date.
"Certainly that was not a military recommendation, but the military, when asked to provide an estimate of how long it would take to retrograde our people and equipment, that number fell in the range of possibly up to 120 days but certainly much shorter than that if we were uncontested. And as it turned out we were uncontested," Austin said.
Austin said the Sept. 11 date was "an objective that was laid out by the administration." When pressed by Cotton, Lloyd could not say who exactly it was who chose Sept. 11 as the deadline.
Cotton also asked McKenzie to verify reports that he had threatened to bomb the Taliban if they took Kabul. McKenzie stated that those reports were incorrect. He also shot back at reports that European military forces conducted ground patrols in Kabul while the U.S. did not.
"I don't believe any of those nations conducted ground patrols in Kabul from [Hamid Karzai International Airport]. I believe that the British went out to what they call the Baron Hotel, which is a facility located about 150 meters off the compound, and they did business there but no one conducted ground patrols," said McKenzie. "In fact, I'm very confident of that based on ... I looked into it with my commander on the ground so I'm quite confident when I make that assertion."
- Joseph Choi
McKenzie said it is “yet to be seen” if the U.S. government can prevent extremist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda from launching attacks from Afghanistan.
“I think we're still seeing how al Qaeda and ISIS are configuring themselves against the Taliban. We’re still seeing [what] the Taliban is going to do ... I would not say I’m confident that that's going to be on the ground yet,” McKenzie said.
“We could get to that point but I do not have that level of confidence,” he added.
As part of the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban, the U.S. government agreed to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in exchange for the promise the extremist group would not allow terrorist organizations to use the country as a launchpad for attacks.
But McKenzie voiced doubts about the Taliban's willingness to stick to that agreement.
"I do not trust the Taliban. I do not consider the Taliban to be a reliable partner, and any time you deal with the Taliban you have to look at what they do and not what they say," he said later in the hearing.
Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Senators slam Pentagon officials Generals contradict Biden, say they advised leaving troops in Afghanistan LIVE COVERAGE: Senators press military leaders on Afghanistan MORE (R-Okla.) also asked Milley whether al Qaeda is “gone” from Afghanistan, as President Biden said in August while U.S. forces were leaving. Prior to that, Biden had said al Qaeda had been “degraded."
Milley replied that he believes the terrorist group still exists in the country and is looking to reconstitute.
“I think al Qaeda is at war with us,” he said.
McKenzie claimed responsibility over the U.S. military drone strike that killed 10 civilians, including seven children, in Afghanistan.
Sen. Mark KellyMark KellyDemocratic incumbents bolster fundraising advantage in key Senate races Warnock raises .5 million in third quarter Anti-Trump Republicans endorsing vulnerable Democrats to prevent GOP takeover MORE (D-Ariz.) said that he would give McKenzie the opportunity to comment on the drone strike and to offer information about the military's future abilities to "adequately" assess possible terrorist threats in Afghanistan.
"What I can tell you broadly and to restate some things I've said earlier, I am responsible for that. It happened in my area of responsibilities, so I am the responsible officer for that strike," McKenzie said.
The U.S. drone strike came after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive close to the Kabul International Airport. The bomber was believed to be affiliated with ISIS-K, ISIS's Afghan affiliate, and more than a dozen American service members died as a result of the terror attack.
"Moreover, I was under no pressure, and no one in my chain of command below me was under any pressure to take that strike. We acted based on the intelligence read that we saw on the ground. We acted several times on intelligence that we saw and we were successful in other occasions in preventing attacks. This time, tragically, we were wrong," McKenzie said.
He added that "it's going to get a lot harder" to get the best picture of what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan going forward.
McKenzie added that the U.S. still maintained the ability to observe terrorist organizations but said the specific details would be better left to the classified hearing.
"But I will tell you that I have, today, headquarters that has the ability to look into Afghanistan, albeit 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 practices 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."
McKenzie said that it is "yet to be seen" whether terrorist organizations will be able to use Afghanistan as a launchpad.
"I think, you know, we're still seeing how al Qaeda and ISIS are configuring themselves against the Taliban. We're still seeing what the Taliban is going to do. So I think it's early ... I would not say I'm confident that that's going to be on the ground yet. We could get to that point but I do not yet have that level of confidence," said McKenzie.
Milley told lawmakers he spoke with several authors for their recent books on the Trump administration, including “Peril,” which has triggered enormous scrutiny of the four-star general in recent weeks.
Milley said he spoke with Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward for "Peril," which was co-authored by Robert Costa. He also said he spoke to Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig for their book, “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” and to Michael Bender for “Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost.”
When asked by Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnButtigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase Hillicon Valley — Presented by American Edge Project — Facebook experiences widespread outage MORE (R-Tenn.) whether he was “accurately represented” in the books, Milley responded, “I haven’t read any of the books, I don’t know.”
“I’ve seen press reporting of it. I haven’t read the books,” Milley added.
Blackburn then asked Milley to read the books and “let us know if you are accurately presented and portrayed,” to which Milley said he would.
Milley has been heavily scrutinized in the past several weeks over his actions during the final days of former President Trump's time in office, as reported by Woodward and Costa, including calls with his Chinese counterpart and his decision to call a meeting of senior military officials to review the procedures for launching deadly weapons.
Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthBuilding back better by investing in workers and communities LIVE COVERAGE: Senators press military leaders on Afghanistan Dems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee MORE (D-Ill.) announced that she will be introducing a bill Thursday to establish an "Afghanistan War study commission" to review the 20-year war and assess what lessons can be learned.
Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran, asked Austin whether it was better to review the last few months of the war or the entire 20 years to gain a proper review of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Lloyd said the entire war would have to be looked at and that he believed "great lessons" would be learned once that review was conducted.
"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," Duckworth said. "No party should be looking to score cheap, partisan political points off a multidecade nation-building failure that was bipartisan in the making. 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 transform a focus military mission into vast nation building campaign," said Duckworth. "Importantly, This commission must 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."
Lloyd added that this commission should have an "interagency approach."
McKenzie defended the Biden administration’s decisions to continue with the evacuation despite the risks of a terror attack on the Kabul airport.
Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerLobbying world The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit GOP tries to take filibuster pressure off Manchin, Sinema MORE (R-N.D.) asked about the Aug. 26 suicide bombing outside the gates at Hamid Karzai International Airport that left 13 service members dead.
“Why were our military members still exposed after that threat was known?” Cramer asked, nodding to warnings prior to the attack of the imminent risk of a security breakdown.
“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 this is an example of where that occurred,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie also pushed back when asked if the Taliban may have let ISIS-K, ISIS's Afghan affiliate and the perpetrator of the attacks, through the gates, saying he believes the Taliban may have assisted in preventing other attacks at the airport.
“So it's possible that they let them in on purpose, 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 are 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.”
McKenzie and Milley told lawmakers that they had recommended 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, contradicting comments made by President Biden earlier this year.
The two generals each acknowledged during public congressional testimony that they agreed with the recommendation of Army Gen. Austin Miller that 2,500 troops be left in the country, though they declined to share in detail what they advised Biden directly.
“I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion, and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation. I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time. Those are my personal views,” McKenzie told the committee under questioning from Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the committee’s top Republican.
McKenzie said it was his view that the full withdrawal would lead to the collapse of Afghan forces and government.
Milley said he agreed with that assessment, saying it was his personal view dating back to last fall that the U.S. should maintain at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to move toward a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government. Milley declined to comment directly on his specific discussions with Biden when questioned by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Asked whether Miller discussed his recommendation with Biden, McKenzie told lawmakers he believed his opinion “was well-heard.”
Republican lawmakers repeatedly raised the matter in the context of an interview Biden gave to ABC News in August during which he denied that his top military commanders recommended he leave 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
Later during the hearing, Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanAlaska man accused of threatening senators to remain detained ahead of trial Alaska tribal groups race to spend COVID-19 relief money Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Senators slam Pentagon officials MORE (R-Alaska) grilled the witnesses on whether Biden made a false statement in the interview.
“That was a false statement, by the President of the United States, was it not?” Sullivan asked.
“I didn’t even see the statement, to tell you the truth,” Milley replied, adding: “I’m not going to characterize a statement of the President of the United States.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) used his time during the hearing to blast what he called the "obvious falsehoods" at the center of the Afghanistan withdrawal and said he's never seen his 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 'extraordinary success.' And here's the biggest: No accountability. No accountability," Sullivan said.
"You gentlemen have spent your lives — and I completely respect 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," he said.
"But on this matter on the biggest national security fiasco in a generation, there has been zero accountability, no responsibility from anybody," Sullivan said, before he was interrupted by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower, for having run out of time to ask his final question. Hirono suggested that he ask his question during the second round of questioning.
Milley said that he had no "personal knowledge" if efforts were made to enforce withdrawal conditions on the Taliban.
Milley's remarks on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan came after a question on withdrawal conditions from Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act GOP tries to take filibuster pressure off Manchin, Sinema Hillicon Valley — Presented by American Edge Project — TSA to issue cybersecurity directives to secure rail, aviation sectors MORE (I-Maine).
Milley repeated that only one condition in the agreement between the U.S. and Taliban made in Doha, Qatar, was met before the withdrawal. King pressed him, asking if any communication had been made with the Taliban to enforce conditions.
"I don't have personal knowledge of that. Whether or not you know Zalmay Khalilzad or others were personally saying that. I can't — I don't have personal knowledge of that but I do know that none of the conditions were met, except the one which, don't attack American forces and coalition forces."
King also asked McKenzie what effect former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country had on the ultimate fall of Kabul.
"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. And when your president flees literally on no notice in the middle of the day, that has a profoundly debilitating effect on everything else," said McKenzie.
"Now, events were pretty far along on 15 August so I want to, I would note that," added McKenzie.
"But I do believe it is possible they could have fought in the middle 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 really disorganized by that, and led to the Taliban really pushing in as fast as they wanted to go into the center of the city."
Milley said he would advise against a firm withdrawal date like the Biden administration used in Afghanistan.
“As a matter of professional advice I would advise any leader don't put date certains on end dates. Make things conditions based. And two presidents in a row put dates on it,” he said. “My advice is don't put specific dates, make beings conditions based. That is how I've been trained over many many years.”
President Biden stuck with an Aug. 31 departure date in Afghanistan, arguing the United States' hands were tied by an agreement forged under the Trump administration.
But Milley also stressed that reneging on the U.S. commitment to leaving by Aug. 31 would have endangered those who remained.
“The risk to mission and the risk to force and most importantly the risk to the American citizens that are remaining — that was going to go up, not down on the first of September,” he said.
“And the risk to American citizens — I know there are American citizens there — but they would have been a greater risk if we stayed past the 31st in our professional opinion.”
Milley tells Sen. Cotton resignation would be "incredible act of political defiance"
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Tuesday asked Milley why he didn't resign when his advice on the Afghanistan withdrawal wasn't heeded.
"As a senior military officer, resigning is a really serious thing. It's a political act if I'm resigning in protest. My job is to provide advice, my statutory responsibility is to provide legal advice or best military advice to the president. And that's my legal requirement. That's what the law is," Milley said.
"The president doesn't have to agree with that advice, he doesn't have to make those decisions just because we're generals. And it would be an incredible act of political defiance, for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken."
"This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we are going to accept and do or not. That's not our job. The principle of civilian control over the military is absolute it's critical to this republic," Milley said, adding on a personal note that soldiers, like his father in Iwo Jima and the 13 soldiers killed at the Kabul airport — "those kids at Abbey Gate" as he referred to them — did not have the option of resigning.
"They can't resign so I'm not going to resign. There's no way," said Milley.
Milley and McKenzie said the Afghan government would still be standing today if Afghan forces had fought as the U.S. had expected.
Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Biden signs bill to help victims of 'Havana syndrome' Lawmakers using leadership PACs as 'slush funds' to live lavish lifestyles: report MORE (D-N.Y.) asked the military leaders for what they think would have happened if Afghan forces had fought, noting that some think a civil was would have broken out if the Taliban had not overtaken the Afghan government.
"My estimate is if they had, you know, performed as we expected them to perform that the government would still be there, they would have probably lost significant chunks of territory, but Kabul would be there," said Milley.
"I think had the Afghan military fought, we would have probably seen the Kabul bowl, the approaches to Kabul, get into the winter still under the control of the government of Afghanistan. A lot of the outlying provinces would not have been," said McKenzie. "But I would just note that it wasn't so much the collapse of the Afghan military as a collapse of the Afghan government writ large. Those two things happened together and they were completely linked together so when you consider one I think you have to think about the other."
Earlier in his testimony, Milley said that the U.S. did not have a full understanding of "leadership morale and will" amongst the Afghan forces. He noted that many units did fight until the "very end" but acknowledged that the majority "melted away in a very, very short period of time."
Milley admitted the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan had damaged the United States' credibility with NATO and other allies around the world.
“I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world and with adversaries, is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go and I think that damage is one word that could be used, yes,” Milley said in response to a question from Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerPentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability White House scrambles to avert supply chain crisis We cannot miss this big moment for national service MORE (R-Miss.).
But when Wicker asked Austin a similar question, Austin disagreed with Milley’s assessment, telling senators that as he engages with his counterparts, “I think our credibility remains solid."
“There will be people who question things going forward, but I would say ... the United States of America, people place great trust and confidence in it. And relationships are things we have to work on continuously. We understand that and we'll continue to do that,” Austin said.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) blasted the Defense Department for referring a question to the State Department, expressing frustration at both departments for deferring questions to each other.
Wicker said he shared his frustrations with Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineFill the Eastern District of Virginia Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' MORE (D-Va.), a fellow committee member who has apparently expressed annoyance in previous hearings.
"We asked them a question, [State Department] said, 'Well you have to ask the Defense Department that.' And now, today, again Defense Department people are before us and the question was asked, and the answer to Sen. [James] Inhofe as well, 'You have to ask the State Department,'" said Wicker.
Wicker chided the Defense Department for not being prepared to answer questions and repeated Kaine's advice that the departments "cut that out."
"I object to the continuation of that in this hearing today," said Wicker.
Both Milley and McKenzie said the Doha agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban reached in 2020 under the Trump administration had a negative impact on the morale of Afghan forces.
Noting that the agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan was reached without the input of the Afghan government or U.S. allies, Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Jack ReedJack ReedSenators ask Biden administration to fund program that helps people pay heating bills LIVE COVERAGE: Senators press military leaders on Afghanistan Top Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal MORE (D-R.I.) asked if the agreement negatively impacted morale.
"Yes, senator, that did affect the morale of the Afghan security forces," said Milley.
"It was my judgment that the Doha agreement did negatively affect the performance of the Afghan forces, but in particular by some of the actions that the government of Afghanistan was required to undertake as part of that agreement," McKenzie said.
Milley defended contacts with his Chinese counterpart in the final weeks of the Trump administration as well as his decision to call a meeting of senior military officials to review the procedures for launching deadly weapons.
Milley said the calls were generated by “concerning intelligence” that caused Americans officials to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the U.S.
“I am certain President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese and it is my directed responsibility — and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary — to convey presidential orders and intent,” Milley said in his opening remarks. “My job at that time was to deescalate. My message again was consistent: calm, steady, and deescalate. We are not going to attack you.”
Austin admitted the U.S. military struggled to handle evacuation efforts in the first days after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban and failed to predict a situation in which Afghan security forces “simply melted away” as U.S. troops left the country.
“Let’s be clear, those first two days were difficult. We all watched with alarm the images of Afghans rushing the runway and our aircraft. We all remember the scenes of confusion outside the airport,” Austin told the committee, but added troops restored order within 48 hours.
“It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in 17 days. Was it perfect? Of course not. We moved so many people so quickly out of Kabul that we ran into capacity and screening problems at intermediate staging bases outside Afghanistan.”
But Austin also insisted the military had been prepared for the evacuation, telling senators that in late April, two weeks after President Biden’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan, military planners had crafted a number of evacuation scenarios.
Then in May, he ordered U.S. Central Command to make preparations for a potential noncombatant evacuation operation and began prepositioning forces in the region, followed by an evacuation exercise on Aug. 10.
“We wanted to be ready, and we were,” he said.
Austin said the decision to start evacuations was made with input from the State Department, “mindful of their concerns that moving too soon might actually cause the very collapse of the Afghan government that we all wanted to avoid, and that moving too late would put our people and our operations at greater risk.”
But he also admitted the quick evaporation of Afghan security forces was unanticipated and that Biden administration officials “didn’t fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks,” as well as “there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight.”
“The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away — in many cases without firing a shot — took us all by surprise and it would be dishonest to claim otherwise,” he said.
“We provided the Afghan military with equipment and aircraft and the skills to use them. Over the years, they often fought bravely. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police died. But in the end, we couldn’t provide them with the will to win. At least not all of them.”
Austin stressed that despite the withdrawal, the military is still working to get Americans out who wish to leave as well as Afghan allies enrolled in the special immigrant visa program.
“We take that seriously and that’s why we are working across the interagency to continue facilitating their departure. Even with no military presence on the ground, that part of our mission is not over.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in his opening statement blamed President Biden for the "chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan."
"The frustration on this committee about the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan is not and should never be directed towards our troops," said Inhofe. "It was President Biden and his advisers who put them in that situation even worse. This was avoidable. Everything that happened was foreseen."
The Oklahoma senator said Biden's "dishonest" decisions will allow terrorism to expand and boost the chances of an attack on the U.S.
"President Biden made a strategic decision to leave Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of 13 U.S. service members, the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians, including women and children — that's what terrorists do — and left American citizens surrounded by the very terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, and they're still there," he concluded.
Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) gaveled in promptly at 9:30 a.m. He said lawmakers would seek to understand the factors contributing to the Taliban’s rapid takeover and the collapse of the Afghan government, not only by examining the developments of recent months but by reviewing the mistakes made over the course of the 20-year war.
“Our withdrawal this summer and the events surrounding it did not happen in a vacuum,” Reed said. “We owe the American people an honest accounting.”
Reed indicated he would ask whether U.S. officials “missed indicators and warnings” of the Taliban’s swift takeover.
Reed also criticized the witnesses for not submitting their written statements until late Monday evening, saying lawmakers expect to receive them by the afternoon prior at the latest in order to have sufficient time to review them.