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4 takeaways from the Mark Milley hearing

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/28/2021 Aaron Blake

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and another senior military leader faced some tough questioning at a high-profile hearing Tuesday — what some labeled the most significant military hearing since Gen. David Petraeus was grilled in 2007 on the Iraq War.

Austin and, in particular, Milley were questioned about the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a final botched drone strike that inadvertently killed innocent people and a recent report in a book by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa that Milley sought to reassure China that then-President Donald Trump wouldn’t launch a preemptive strike against it.

Below are some takeaways.

1. Milley’s forceful defense on China — including giving it a heads-up

One of the biggest questions looming over the hearing is precisely how “rogue” Milley was going when he reached out to his Chinese counterpart in October and in January to offer reassurances that the United States would not launch a preemptive strike. Costa and Woodward reported that this was done because China was getting bad intelligence on that front, combined with Milley’s fear that Trump’s actions might spark a military confrontation between the two superpowers.

Milley, knowing the questions were coming, sought to lay out a preemptive and forceful defense.

He emphasized that this was something that was cleared with the highest levels of the Defense Department, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and later with acting defense secretary Christopher Miller. He said he also looped in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows after the second call. In other words, the message was that it wasn’t just him.

“With respect to the Chinese calls … [they] were coordinated before and after with Secretary Esper and acting secretary Miller’s staffs and the interagency," Milley said.

He added: “At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority or insert myself in the chain of command.”

Milley also sought to play down the idea that this was done out of fear of Trump’s potential actions.

“I know — I am certain — that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it was my direct responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” Milley said.

Trump has said that what Milley is reported to have done amounted to treason (a charge Trump often makes), but Milley says the White House was looped in — at least on the back end. A logical question is whether Pompeo and Meadows shared this with Trump, especially given Trump’s criticism, and whether they raised any objections in real time.

As the hearing wore on, Milley eventually expanded upon the crux of the controversy over the new book: his reported promise to give China a heads-up if an attack was coming.

Under questioning from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Milley summarized his outreach as, “I told [China] if there was going to be an attack, there’ll be plenty of communications going back and forth. Your intel systems are going to pick it up. I said I’ll probably call you. Everybody’ll be calling you. We’re not going to attack you. Just settle down. It’s not going to happen."

Sullivan pushed back, saying it would have amounted to giving the Chinese Communist Party a preview of an attack.

Milley responded that the point was it wasn’t going to happen, which is why he said what he did.

“I was being faithful to the President of the United States’s intent," Milley said. "I was being faithful to his intent.”

2. Increasing contradictions on Biden’s withdrawal claims


One of the most important things in these hearings is getting the key players on the record — and under oath. And the military figures’ version of events before the withdrawal again calls into question how this was detailed publicly, including by President Biden.

In an interview with ABC News during the withdrawal, Biden maintained that he had no recollection that his military advisers had called for keeping troops in Afghanistan:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?
BIDEN: No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a time frame all troops. They didn’t argue against that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So 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?"
BIDEN: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.

Milley stated that he had recommended in the fall of 2020, during Trump’s presidency, keeping troops there and that his recommendation of 2,500 to 3,500 troops “remained consistent throughout.” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, testified, “I recommended we keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sought to drill down on this, pressing the military leaders on whether they had directly conveyed this to Biden.

Both Milley and McKenzie declined to detail their personal conversations with the commander in chief. But McKenzie indicated that a similar opinion of Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top general in Afghanistan, was made clear. “I believe that his opinion was well-heard,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie said earlier when asked about whether Miller’s recommendation made its way to the president: “I was present when that discussion occurred, and I am confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to him very thoughtfully.”

Cotton then pressed Austin on Biden’s ABC interview, at which point Austin chose his words carefully:

AUSTIN: Well, first of all, I know the president to be an honest and forthright man. And secondly —
COTTON: It’s a simple question, Secretary Austin. He said no senior military leader advised him to leave a small troop presence behind. Is that true or not? Did these officers and General Miller’s recommendations get to the president, personally?
AUSTIN: Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure. In terms of what they specifically recommended, senator, as they just said, they’re not going to provide what they recommended in confidence.

The White House responded by pointing to Biden saying in an earlier exchange in the ABC News interview that the advice was “split.”

Stephanopoulous then asked, “They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?" To which Biden responded, “No — not in terms of whether we were going to get out, in a timeframe, all troops. They didn’t argue against that.”

The response from Biden was weird at the time, as The Post’s fact-checker noted, given the volume of reporting suggesting that military leaders had advised against a full withdrawal. And Tuesday’s hearing only thickens that very important plot.

3. Milley’s war-defining phrase: ‘Strategic failure’


The above wasn’t the only Biden comment that came in for some serious scrutiny.

One of the bluntest assessments came late in the morning, when Milley was asked by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), “Would you use the term ‘extraordinary success’ for what took place in August in Afghanistan?”

The question referred to the phrase Biden used on on Aug. 31, at the end of the withdrawal. But Milley had another phrase in mind: “strategic failure.”

“I think one of the other senators said it very well,” Milley responded. “It was a logistical success, but a strategic failure. And I think those are two different [things]."

That doesn’t necessarily directly contradict what Biden said. Biden’s comments dealt with the airlift that the administration said successfully evacuated 120,000 people. But it’s very notable that, when asked specifically about Biden’s comment, Milley sought to emphasize the strategic shortcomings that the administration sought to deemphasize — and ones specifically pertaining to the conditions for the withdrawal.

Milley also used the phrase “strategic failure” at another point — while emphasizing it long predated the Biden administration.

“Outcomes in a war like this — an outcome that is a strategic failure, the enemy is in charge in Kabul — there’s no way else to describe that," Milley said, while adding "that outcome is the cumulative effect of twenty years, not twenty days.”

4. A tough day for Trump’s Taliban deal

As the withdrawal from Afghanistan devolved, criticism built not just for the Biden administration, but with regard to the deal Trump struck with the Taliban in early 2020 in Doha, Qatar, that paved the way for it. That criticism included some from Trump allies.

Both Austin and Milley cast the deal as largely a failure, particularly when the Afghan military — which the United States had tried to prop up for 20 years — quickly collapsed and allowed the Taliban to take control.

“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths … [including] that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers,” Austin said.

Milley agreed that “it did affect the morale of the Afghan security forces.” McKenzie said it “did negatively affect the performance of the Afghan forces.”

Milley added that the Taliban failed to live up to the agreement, except for one solitary condition.

“While the Taliban did not attack U.S. forces, which was one of the conditions, it failed to fully honor any — any — other condition under the Doha agreement,” Milley said.

Milley added that this was part of the reason he had advised in fall 2020 against a full withdrawal and continued to advise against it.

Interestingly, the deal also seemed to again come in for some criticism — albeit indirect — by Republicans.

The ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), said in his opening statement, “We went from where ‘We will never negotiate with terrorists’ to ‘We must negotiate with terrorists.’ You know, over the years that I’ve been here, we’ve heard that over and over again: You don’t negotiate with terrorists. And now it’s required.”

The comment seemed intended to criticize the Biden administration’s negotiations with the Taliban as the withdrawal was playing out, but as with other GOP criticisms of the withdrawal, it could just as easily be applied to Trump’s Taliban deal. When that deal was signed in early 2020, Inhofe hailed it, saying, “I commend President Trump and his administration for this weekend’s historic steps towards peace in Afghanistan.”

Milley’s comments in particular suggest that the deal wasn’t much better than the paper on which it was written. The Biden administration, of course, moved forward with the withdrawal anyway, prompting questions about why it would abide by the withdrawal promise in the absence of Taliban compliance.

Austin echoed Biden in saying that this was at least in part because “the intelligence was clear that if we did not leave in accordance with that agreement, the Taliban would recommence attacks on our forces.”

But this explanation was insufficient for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

I don’t buy the idea that this president was bound by a decision made by prior president,” Tillis said. “This was not a treaty, and it was clearly an agreement where the Taliban were not living up to it. … He’s not bound by the president’s prior agreements any more than he was bound by President Trump’s decision to exit the Iran deal or the Paris climate accords. So that, to me, is a false narrative.”


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