America’s top generals under oath before the Senate Armed Services testified Tuesday that they advised against a full troop pullout from Afghanistan, contradicting comments by President Joe Biden.
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said at the Senate hearing he recommended 2,500 troops stay in Afghanistan. McKenzie, along with other top military leaders, said publicly for the first time that he personally believed the U.S. should not exit from Afghanistan.
In addition to McKenzie, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley testified on the final withdrawal of troops as the Taliban took control of the country.
The Aug. 31 exit led to a chaotic airlift of Afghans trying to flee the country and the deaths of 13 service members in a terrorist bombing at the Kabul airport. An unknown number of American citizens and Afghans who assisted the U.S. were left behind.
“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,” McKenzie said Tuesday. “I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government.”
The statements dispute comments by Biden that included a TV interview in early August, in which the president said that military leaders did not recommend troops should remain in Afghanistan. Responding to a specific question by ABC News on whether he was advised to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, Biden said “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.”
Sen. Sullivan: Did the president make ‘false’ statements?
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan and other Armed Services committee members questioned military leaders about their communications with the president and the decision-making that led to the exit.
Sullivan asked Milley about Biden’s comments in August on troop withdrawal. He repeatedly asked the general if the president made “false” statements to the American public.
Sullivan said that Biden stated in the Aug. 18 ABC interview that “none of his military advisers told him that he should keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan.”
Addressing Milley, Sullivan said: “That was a false statement by the president of the United States, was it not?”
After Sullivan repeated the question, the general replied: “I’m not going to categorize the statement of the United States president.”
Sullivan then asked McKenzie: “The president said none of his commanders said that he should keep troops in Afghanistan. Was that a false statement by the president?”
McKenzie said: “I’ve given you my opinion on the matter. I’ve given you my judgment on it,” he said referring to earlier testimony about his recommendation on keeping a military presence in Afghanistan.
None of the military leaders testifying Tuesday detailed their direct conversations with the president.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki later defended the president’s statements and actions. Psaki said that if troops had stayed in Afghanistan, the Taliban would have engaged in combat with the U.S. soldiers.
Biden “didn’t think it was in the interests of the American people” to maintain troops in Afghanistan, she said.
Legislation addresses pressing Afghanistan issues
Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, Sullivan and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch introduced legislation that would address pressing issues related to the Afghanistan withdrawal. The bill would create a State Department task force focused on evacuating American citizens and Afghans with special immigrant visas trapped in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act also adds more oversight to visa processing of refugees, develops counter-terrorism strategies, addresses Taliban-seized U.S. military equipment left behind, and sanctions the Taliban and others for terrorism and human rights abuses in Afghanistan. Twenty-one Republican senators have joined as co-sponsors of the legislation.
When he introduced the legislation Monday, Sullivan predicted lasting consequences from the U.S. approach to the military withdrawal in the war-torn country, describing it as a “foreign policy fiasco.”
“The faith of our allies has weakened, our adversaries have been emboldened, hundreds of Americans and thousands of our Afghan allies were left at the mercy of a ruthless Taliban, and Afghanistan is once again a safe haven for global terrorism,” Sullivan said.