Generals contradict Biden, say they advised leaving troops in Afghanistan

Top military officials told lawmakers on Tuesday that they had recommended 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, contradicting comments made by President BidenJoe BidenBiden to provide update Monday on US response to omicron variant Restless progressives eye 2024 Emhoff lights first candle in National Menorah-lighting ceremony MORE earlier this year.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyTrump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Russian military buildup puts Washington on edge Overnight Defense & National Security — Russian military moves cause for concern MORE, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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 denied to detail what they advised Biden directly.

Biden announced his decision to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan back in April.

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“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 Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday under questioning from Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency Senate GOP threatens to block defense bill    Outcry grows over Russian missile test that hit satellite MORE (Okla.), the panel’s top Republican.

McKenzie said it had been his view that the full U.S. withdrawal would lead to the collapse of Afghan forces and government.

Milley said he agreed with that assessment and that 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 CottonTom Bryant CottonGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai Biden says he's 'considering' a diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics MORE (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.

“Your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops,” ABC’s George StephanopoulosGeorge Robert StephanopoulosKlobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Fauci defends omicron travel restrictions Fauci says omicron variant will 'inevitably' hit US MORE said to Biden in the interview.

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“No, they didn't,” Biden replied. “It was split. That wasn't true.”

“Your military advisers did not tell you, ‘No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that’?” Stephanopoulos later pressed.

“No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden replied.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiThe massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) Russian military buildup puts Washington on edge White House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season MORE tweeted Tuesday afternoon that leaving 2,500 troops in Afghanistan would have escalated the conflict due to the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban to withdraw.

“As @POTUS told ABC, ending the war in Afghanistan was in our national interest. He said advice was split, but consensus of top military advisors was 2500 troops staying meant escalation due to deal by the previous admin. @SecDef, the Chairman, and GEN McKenzie all reiterated,” Psaki tweeted.

Psaki further defended Biden's past comments during an afternoon press briefing, saying he was given a range of advice and that remaining in Afghanistan would have necessitated a further troop increase while risking lives of U.S. service members. 

“The president is always going to welcome a range of advice. He asks for candor. He asks for directness. And in any scenario he’s not looking for a bunch of 'yes' men and women,” Psaki told reporters, adding that it is up to Biden to ultimately decide “what's in the best interest of the United States.”

Milley said during the hearing that the U.S. would have been back at war with the Taliban if forces had stayed beyond Aug. 31.

Military generals unanimously recommended that Biden stick to the Aug. 31 withdrawal date on Aug. 25, Milley said, when Biden was considering extending the deadline to accommodate the evacuation mission.

Asked about the ABC News exchange on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Drones are a strategic liability for US MORE called Biden an “honest and forthright man.”

“Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure,” Austin told Cotton when asked if Biden’s statement to ABC was true. “In terms of what they specifically recommended, senator, as they just said, they’re not going to provide what they recommended in confidence.”

Later during the hearing, Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanMan charged with threatening Alaska senators pleads not guilty China conducts combat readiness drill after US congressional delegation arrives in Taiwan Overnight Defense & National Security — A new plan to treat Marines 'like human beings' MORE (R-Alaska) grilled the witnesses on whether Biden made a false statement in the interview.

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“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.”

In April, Biden ordered the full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. U.S. forces completed the withdrawal by Aug. 31, capping a chaotic exit and evacuation mission from the war-torn country after the Taliban gained control of Kabul earlier the same month.

Miller appeared before lawmakers for classified testimony earlier this month. Tuesday's hearing was the first time that top military officials have testified publicly since the August withdrawal.

Updated at 2:10 p.m.