While they wouldn’t specifically detail what they told President Joe Biden earlier this year, two of the military’s highest-ranking generals told lawmakers on Tuesday that they did not support withdrawing from Afghanistan this year.
For the first time, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that in his personal opinion, a force of 2,500 should’ve been allowed to stay in Afghanistan, to maintain stability there.
“I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion,” Milley said during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing on the Afghanistan drawdown. “And my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation. I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.”
Milley and U.S. Central Command boss Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie both acknowledged that they had also proposed that 2,500 number to former President Donald Trump, though neither would say that they gave the same recommendation to President Joe Biden as he prepared to announce a full withdrawal in April.
“I can tell you with 100-percent certainty that the military voice was heard, and it was considered,” Milley said.
The admissions showed in stark contrast how the chain of command works, at a time when fingers have been pointed around the federal government at different junctures, trying to place blame for who gave what advice, who made what decisions and who came up with which plans.
“It was considered but not followed, correct?” Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., asked.
“Presidents are elected for reasons,” Milley said. “They make strategic decisions.”
Asked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., why Milley didn’t resign when Biden went against his advice, he broke it down in plain language.
“The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice. He doesn’t have to make those decisions,” Milley said. “... it would be an incredible act of political defiance, for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken. This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we are going to accept and do or not, ― that’s not our job.”
The six-hour hearing spanned a range of issues, from the Doha agreement with the Taliban that called for a May 1 withdrawal, to the Biden-ordered September deadline, the collapse of the Afghan government, the non-combatant evacuation in the final days and the decision to hew to the deadline despite American citizens and Afghan allies still being trapped in the country.
The senior leaders concluded that the drawdown, in and of itself, likely accelerated the collapse of the Afghan security forces and democratically-elected government.
“My judgment that the Doha agreement did negatively affect the performance of the Afghan forces, both in particular, but [also because of] some of the actions that the government of Afghanistan was required to undertake as part of that agreement,” McKenzie said.
Challenges with the Afghan National Army and National Police were well-documented, though Milley and others have said that their best intelligence reports did not predict it would take only days for the country to fall.
“I think that one error we may have made ― over time, as we made them too dependent on technology, too dependent on our capabilities,” Milley said. “We didn’t take in the cultural aspects perhaps as much as we should have, and we mirror-imaged.”
Once the Taliban had taken over, much of the shape of the drawdown changed, officials said.
The Doha agreement had convinced the Taliban to cease attacks on U.S. and coalition troops, lowering the casualties in the country considerably, but that was all based on the belief that the U.S. would leave. Biden’s drawdown timeline broke the Trump administration’s May 1 promise, but officials weren’t willing to risk blowing a second deadline.
After Kabul fell, the officials told multiple lawmakers, they did not advise staying in Afghanistan past Aug. 31. The Taliban threat was compounded by imminent ISIS threats bearing down on the Kabul airport.
Officials have said in the past that much of the calculus for drawdown timeline was based on the Taliban’s agreement to hold off on attacking U.S. troops. Breaking that Aug. 31 commitment would have reignited fighting, and the force of several thousand at Hamid Karzai International Airport would not have been able to hold them off.
“If we stayed past the 31st, which militarily is feasible, but it would have required an additional commitment of significant amounts of forces,” Milley said. “... Maybe 25,000 troops ... Beginning on the first, and that would have resulted in significant casualties on the U.S, side, and it would have placed American citizens that are still there, at greater risk.”
Likewise, Austin said, even if the president had taken their advice and kept 2,500 troops on the ground, at some point, the Taliban would have restarted attacks, requiring another surge of troops to keep things stable.
Though questions abounded about whether the U.S. should have stayed or left, and whether a longer evacuation would have sped up the fall of the Afghan government, Milley offered a succinct assessment.
“I think the end-state probably would have been the same, no matter when you did it,” he said.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.