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Afghanistan updates: Top generals back for 2nd day of grilling on US withdrawal

ABC News logo ABC News 9/29/2021
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It's been nearly one month since the U.S. withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan on President Joe Biden's order to leave by Aug. 31, ending a chaotic evacuation operation after the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban seized the capital Kabul.

Top Pentagon leaders are appearing before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday amid bipartisan criticism of the chaotic withdrawal and on the failure to anticipate the Taliban's swift takeover of the country.

In their appearance before Congress on Tuesday -- their first since the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan -- the leaders candidly admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee that they had recommended to Biden that the U.S. should keep a troop presence there, appearing to contradict his assertions to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos.

 

Latest Developments

September 29, 2021

Lawmaker, an Air Force veteran, blasts Biden for alleged 'falsehood' on residual troops

 

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, nearly choked up when speaking in the House hearing on Afghanistan and offered some harsh words for Biden and the committee, which he said under both Democrat and Republican presidents cautioned against a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan.

 

"I think most veterans feel heartbroken knowing the blood and the treasure spilled ended up in a ‘strategic failure,'" Bacon said, quoting witness Gen. Mark Milley. "I think we’re enraged by it."

 

"Then to have the president come out and say that this was a success, and he had no regrets -- this does not break our hearts, that makes us mad as hell," Bacon continued.  

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testify before Senate Armed Services Committee, Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C. © Alex Wong/Getty Images Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testify before Senate Armed Services Committee, Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

"The fact that President Biden on ABC said that no one that he can recall advised him to keep a force of about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, it's not true. We heard yesterday, and we've heard today that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the CENTCOM commander advise differently," he said. "I have no other view to see this as a lie. A falsehood from our president -- that makes us mad as hell too."

Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., pushed back on Bacon’s interpretation of Biden’s interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, by focusing on the world "stable."

 

"He was asked, could they stay there in a stable environment. That is the option he said wasn't on the table, not because it wasn't offered, but because it didn't exist," Smith said.

 
September 29, 2021

Defense secretary says he 'did not support staying in Afghanistan forever'

 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing he wouldn’t absolutely rule out sending troops back into Afghanistan, and added, "If we do, the military will provide good credible options to be able to do that and to be effective."

 

While maintaining that he wouldn’t talk about his recommendation to President Biden on leaving a residual force, Austin said he "did not support staying in Afghanistan forever" and that keeping a presence there would have required more troops for force protection if the Taliban started attacking the U.S. military as it had promised to do.

 

"Let me be clear that I support the president's decision to end the war in Afghanistan. I did not support staying in Afghanistan forever. And let me also say we've talked about the process that we used to provide input to the president," Austin said. 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C. © Olivier Douliery/Pool via AFP/Getty Images Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C.  

"I will always keep my recommendations to the president confidential but I would say that in my view there is no, was no risk-free status quo option. I think that the Taliban had been clear that if we stayed there longer, they were going to recommence attacks on our forces," Austin added. 

 

"I think while it's conceivable that you could stay there, my view is that you would have had to deploy more forces in order to protect ourselves and accomplish any missions we would have been assigned. It's also my view, Mister Chairman, the best way to end this war was through a negotiated settlement and sadly that did not happen."

 
 
September 29, 2021

GOP links failed drone strike to 'over-the-horizon' capabilities 

 

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, raising the August U.S. drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children, took direct issue with the U.S. military’s ability to conduct "over the horizon" drone strike capabilities in Afghanistan.

 

"What we know from your prior statements is that you did not know who it was, who was in the car, whose house it was," Turner said. "This greatly concerns me as we look to the over horizon claims that the administration has of its ability for counterterrorism."

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told House lawmakers he took "full responsibility" for the strike. 

General Kenneth McKenzie listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 28, 2021. © Stefani Reynolds/Pool via Reuters General Kenneth McKenzie listens during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 28, 2021.

"That strike was a mistake and I take full responsibility for that strike. I was under no pressure from any quarter to conduct the strike," McKenzie said. 

"While in many cases we were right with our intelligence and forestalled ISIS- K attacks, in this case we were wrong, tragically wrong," he added. 

"Over-the-horizon" capabilities are a cornerstone of the U.S. military’s counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan. The top Pentagon commanders said the U.S. will continue to investigate the intelligence that led to the August strike and will be transparent with their findings.

 
September 29, 2021

Milley praises Afghanistan War veterans, defends calls to China

 

Echoing Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in his opening testimony that lawmakers can debate the decisions surrounding the Afghanistan withdrawal but that the courage of U.S. service members is not up for debate. 

 

"Over the course of four presidents, 12 secretaries of defense, seven chairmen, 10 CENTCOM commanders, 20 commanders in Afghanistan, hundreds of congressional delegation visits, and 20 years of congressional oversight, there are many lessons to be learned," Milley said. 

 

"One lesson we can never forget: every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine who served there for 20 years, protected our country against attack by terrorists, and for that we all should be forever grateful, and they should be forever proud," he said. 

  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testify before Senate Armed Services Committee, Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C. © Alex Wong/Getty Images Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testify before Senate Armed Services Committee, Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.  

Milley again took the chance to push back on recent characterizations of phone calls to China's top military official in the final days of former President Donald Trump’s presidency.

 

"At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself into the chain of command. But I am expected to give my advice and ensure that the president was fully informed on military affairs," he said.

 
September 29, 2021

Defense secretary delivers opening testimony for House lawmakers 

 

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, facing a House panel on Wednesday, repeated his opening testimony given to Senate lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing, in which Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, appeared to contradict Biden by saying they recommended keeping a residual force of 2,500 troops behind in Afghanistan. 

 

Austin again defended leaving Bagram Airfield, saying it would have required at least 5,000 troops and would have "contributed little" to the mission of protecting the embassy in Kabul, which ultimately fell to Taliban control. 

  

"Staying in Baghram even for counterterrorism purposes meant staying at war in Afghanistan, something that the president made clear that he would not do," Austin said. 

 

He again walked through some "uncomfortable truths" about the two-decade U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, of which he is a veteran.

 

"We helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation. The fact that the Afghan army that 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.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C. © Olivier Douliery/Pool via AFP/Getty Images Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin testifies before a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
 
September 29, 2021

Heated House hearing underway with residual force in focus

 

House Armed Services Chair Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., opened Wednesday’s hearing on Afghanistan with a defense of Biden for ending America’s longest war -- and with a preemptive strike on the panel’s Republicans, who he said would spend the day trying to get the military leaders to contradict the commander in chief.

 

"The option of keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan in a peaceful and stable environment did not exist," Smith said, opening the hearing. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley arrives at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C. © Olivier Douliery/Pool via AFP/Getty Images Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley arrives at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill, Sept. 29, 2021, in Washington, D.C.  

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, face a second day of questions from congressional lawmakers on the U.S. military’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan.

 

Ranking Republican member Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said he "could not disagree more" with Smith and called Biden "delusional" before the leaders gave their opening testimonies.

 
September 29, 2021

Top military leaders face more questions in House hearing 

 

The nation's top military leaders are back on Capitol Hill at 9:30 a.m. before the House Armed Services Committee -- where Republicans are expected to seize on their comments from Tuesday that they recommended Biden keep a residual force of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, appearing to contradict the president’s comments to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos

 

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, candidly admitted in a Senate hearing on Tuesday -- their first appearance before lawmakers since the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan -- that they had recommended the U.S. keep a small troop presence there, with Milley openly advising presidents not to assign complete withdrawal dates without conditions.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley arrives before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 28, 2021. © Patrick Semansky/Pool via AFP/Getty Images Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley arrives before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 28, 2021.  

In the six-hour hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Milley also characterized that the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan as "a strategic failure" and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged that it was time to acknowledged some "uncomfortable truths" about the two-decade U.S. military mission there. House lawmakers are expected to follow up on the revelations on Wednesday.

 
September 28, 2021

1st Senate hearing with top commanders on Afghanistan adjourns

After nearly six hours of testimonies and tough questions, the Senate Armed Services Committee has adjourned its hearing with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command -- their first since the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Senators sunk into Milley and McKenzie saying they had recommended leaving 2,500 troops behind as a residual force in Afghanistan ahead of the chaotic evacuation effort. Several GOP senators called on the leaders to resign, to which Milley offered a powerful rebuttal.

"It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken," Milley said. "My dad didn't get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testify before Senate Armed Services Committee, Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C. © Alex Wong/Getty Images Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie testify before Senate Armed Services Committee, Sept. 28, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, during the hearing, defended Biden's interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in which the president said the views of his advisers were "split," saying, “There was no one who said, 'Five years from now, we could have 2,500 troops, and that would be sustainable.'”

 

"That was not a decision the president was going to make," Psaki added. "Ultimately, it's up to the commander in chief to make a decision. He made a decision it was time to end a 20-year war.”

It's been nearly one month since Biden withdrew all U.S. troops, ending a chaotic evacuation operation after the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban seized the capital Kabul.

 
September 28, 2021

White House insists there was a range of military advice on whether to keep residual force

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the discrepancy between President Biden telling ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in August that commanders were "split" and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and head of CENTCOM Gen. Frank McKenzie telling senators Tuesday they recommended keeping 2,500 troops. 

“There was a range of viewpoints, as was evidenced by their testimony today, that were presented to the president, that were presented to the national security team, as would be expected, as he asks for," Psaki said, after quoting the ABC News transcript

"Again, I'm not going to get into specific details of who recommended what, but I can, I would reiterate a little bit of what I conveyed before, which is that there were recommendations made by a range of his advisors, something he welcomed, something he asked them to come to him clear-eyed about, to give him candid advice," Psaki said later on. 

"What is also clear, though -- and I'd also note again what Secretary Austin said today, is that was not going to be a sustainable, over the long-term, troop presence. We were always going to look at escalating the numbers, at potentially going back to war with the Taliban, at risking casualties," she reiterated.

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© Olivier Douliery/Pool via AFP/Getty Images

Video: Taliban Takes Control Of Kabul Airport (The Independent)

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