National Security

House lawmakers press Pentagon over Afghanistan withdrawal

House lawmakers on Wednesday had their chance to grill the Pentagon’s top leaders on the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, digging down into decisions Biden administration officials made before, during and after U.S. forces evacuated the country.

The questions revealed a number of surprising revelations, including news that the Taliban had offered the U.S. military the option to secure the entire city of Kabul while it was leaving; the fact that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley knew the conflict was a “stalemate” as far back as six years ago; and that the military leaders knew a deadly drone strike in Kabul had been a mistake days after it happened.

But the House Armed Services Committee meeting was decidedly calmer than that of its counterpart in the Senate, which took place a day prior, with only a handful of flare-ups.

The most heated moments of the hearing came as lawmakers continued to debate the extent to which Biden had been advised by his military leaders to leave 2,500 troops on the ground, relitigating an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

During the interview, Biden pushed back on the idea that his advisers were in agreement over that number, telling Stephanopoulos that his advisers were “split” and that he could not recall anyone recommending he keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

U.S. Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie and Milley, who testified alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, acknowledged during the 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 detail what they advised Biden directly.

But Republicans seized on a portion of the interview where Biden said he did not recall anyone giving him that advice.

“Here’s the thing, there’s only three possibilities here: either the president lied to the American people, or he legitimately cannot remember the counsel of his top military advisors in winding down the longest war in American history, or you have not been fully accurate under oath,” Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) said to the three military leaders.

The rehashed interview touched a nerve with Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who pushed back against what he saw as mischaracterizations of the president’s answer.

“What he said was, ‘You cannot have 2,500 troops stay there in a stable situation.’ So we should at least be accurate about what information was provided. I would urge everyone to go back and actually look at the words and not take what is being said here as accurate,” Smith said at one point, arguing with Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).

As Bacon objected, saying he was reading the transcript, Smith cut him off.

“I read it too and I read it with a clear, open vision of what he was saying, not with a bent to try and make sure that we could successfully have a partisan attack on him.”

The exchange led to an impassioned response from Smith, who defended the trio’s actions in Afghanistan as well as Biden’s decision making.

“While we’re ripping apart these three gentlemen here, I want to remind everybody that the decision the president made was to stop fighting a war that after 20 years it was proven we could not win. There was no easy way to do that,” Smith said.

“We can look at 20 years, pick your favorite general, pick your favorite president, pick your favorite leader. None of them could successfully do what so many members of this committee are sitting here telling these gentlemen that they’re basically idiots for not being able to do. We should pause for just a moment and think about the fact that maybe that’s the wrong argument. Maybe the mission itself was really hard to achieve.”

The White House has defended Biden from Republican criticism by insisting that his comments in the ABC News interview were more nuanced and have been taken out of context. White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested Wednesday that Biden meant that none of his advisers said the 2,500-troop recommendation could be maintained over the long term.

“No one was suggesting that over the long term, we could keep 2,500 troops and that would be sustainable over the long term,” Psaki said, saying that the U.S. would have needed to increase troop numbers eventually. “There was not a single option that was presented that did not have risks, major risks, including those that would maintain the status quo of 2,500 troops over the long term.”

The hearing also had nuggets of new information, including Milley’s revelation that he didn’t believe there was a “military solution” to the conflict up to six years ago and thought a negotiated settlement was the best option to end the “unwinnable” war.

“I think if you go back to five, six years ago, I knew it was stalemated. Lost is a different word, but I believed it was stalemated, and I believed, five or six years ago, that it was unwinnable for U.S. military means. For several reasons,” Milley told lawmakers.

And all three leaders said they knew, hours after it occurred, that the mistaken Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul had killed innocent bystanders.

“We knew the strike hit civilians within four or five hours after the strike occurred. And U.S. Central Command released a press release saying that. We did not know the target of the strike was an error, a mistake until some days later, but we knew pretty soon,” McKenzie said of the strike that killed 10 people, including seven children.

McKenzie also confirmed that on Aug. 15, the day Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, he met the head of the Taliban’s political wing in Doha, where the U.S. was offered the option to secure Kabul. McKenzie said he did not agree to such an offer as it was not in his instructions and “we did not have the resources to undertake that mission.”

Milley also faced renewed scrutiny over a different topic than Afghanistan — mainly, revelations about his calls to his Chinese counterpart during the Trump administration, first brought to light in the new book “Peril.”

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) complained that members of Congress hadn’t been briefed on the intelligence that Milley said motivated his calls because it showed China was worried about an attack by the U.S. and asked him to brief lawmakers on the intelligence and turn over other documents.

Milley, meanwhile, countered that the intelligence that led to the call had been seen by numerous top officials in the Trump administration and was even included in Trump’s daily intelligence briefing. He also offered to brief lawmakers in a classified setting, which he did for the Senate Armed Services Committee the day prior.

Milley also admitted that he told Gen. Li Zuocheng of China, “I’ll probably give you a call” before the U.S. launched an attack against China, but he said the comment was part of a broader effort to assuage Chinese fears about a U.S. attack on orders of then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

“I’m not going to tip off the enemy about what the United States is going to do in an actual plan,” Milley said. “What I’m trying to do is persuade an adversary that is heavily armed that was clearly and unambiguously, according to intelligence reports, very nervous about our behavior and what was happening inside this country.”

Republicans have also taken issue with Milley’s disclosure on Tuesday that he spoke to one of the authors of “Peril,” Bob Woodward, as well as other authors of books on the Trump administration.

Psaki reiterated on Wednesday that Biden “absolutely has confidence” in Milley.

“He has worked side-by-side with him over the last nine months through clearly some difficult times, difficult decisions in his presidency,” Psaki told reporters. 

Tags Adam Smith Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal China Frank McKenzie George Stephanopoulos Jen Psaki Joe Biden Li Zuocheng Lloyd Austin Mark Esper Mark Milley Mike Johnson Mike Turner

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