Milley, Austin Testify to a House Panel on Afghanistan
The Biden administration’s top military officials faced another congressional panel on Wednesday to answer questions from lawmakers about the chaotic end of the war in Afghanistan, a day after a heated hearing in the Senate in which they acknowledged that their advice to President Biden not to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan had gone unheeded.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the House Armed Services Committee along with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command. They are expected to receive similar questions about the discussions they had with the president ahead of a chaotic evacuation last month in which 13 U.S. service members died in a suicide bombing and 10 Afghan civilians were killed in an American drone strike.
Indeed, partisan jousting was evident in senior lawmakers’ opening remarks. “The president made the right call” to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the committee’s chairman, who also noted the evacuation was “rushed.”
Representative Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the panel’s top Republican, sharply criticized the administration’s handling of the final withdrawal: “After this debacle, I don’t think anyone can trust anything this president says about Afghanistan.”
During an at times acrimonious Senate hearing on Tuesday, General Milley said that military leaders had given their advice to Mr. Biden before the president’s April decision to withdraw. Those views, the general said, had not changed since November, when he had recommended that President Donald J. Trump keep American troops in Afghanistan.
But, the general added, “Decision makers are not required, in any manner, shape or form, to follow that advice.”
On Wednesday, General Milley also defended his actions in the tumultuous last months of the Trump administration, insisting that calls to his Chinese counterpart and a meeting in which he told generals to alert him if the president tried to launch a nuclear weapon were part of his duties as the country’s top military officer.
General Milley said he was directed by Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary at the time, to call his Chinese counterpart on Oct. 30 because there was “intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.” He added that other senior U.S. officials, including Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state, were aware of the calls.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be. One spokesman told The Times that the group wanted to forget its past, but that there would be some restrictions.
“I know, I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” he said. “My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: stay calm, steady and de-escalate.”
Senators pressed the three men on why the Pentagon failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and Afghan military, why the United States did not start evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans sooner, and what the Pentagon was doing now to help the remaining Americans and Afghans who wanted to leave the country.
Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general who served in Afghanistan, conceded that the collapse of the Afghan army in the final weeks of the war — in many cases without the Taliban firing a shot — surprised top commanders.
“We failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight,” Mr. Austin said.
Democrats, like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, asked whether leaving troops in Afghanistan for another year would have made a difference. Mr. Austin said no.