For a second straight day, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and the head of U.S. Central Command Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie appeared for a congressional committee to answer pointed questions about the chaotic, deadly pullout from Afghanistan last month.
All three appeared before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday to face grilling from Republicans demanding answers about how the evacuation evolved, what advice the defense officials gave to President Joe Biden in advance of the pullout, and how the Pentagon botched a drone strike against a suspected ISIS-K target who turned out to be an innocent Afghan civilian, leaving him nine others dead including seven children.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the committee, led off by asking Milley if the Defense Department was in charge of making the decision about wind-down troop strength in Afghanistan ahead of the pullout, and if he believed that the U.S. should have kept at least 2,500 troops, in a support role.
Milley affirmed that he had and that his recommendation remained the same until Biden made the decision to pull out of the country completely.
“I rendered my opinions and it was a fulsome debate on all of that,” the four-star Army general responded, adding: “Once decisions are made, then I’m expected to execute lawful orders.”
Rogers then turned his attention to McKenzie, who also said he recommended keeping U.S. troop levels at 2,500 but was summarily overruled, though he refused to answer when Rogers brought up comments Biden said in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in August that no one in the Pentagon made that recommendation.
“Sir, I’m not gonna comment on a statement by the president,” said McKenzie after the Alabama Republican asked him if Biden’s comment was “accurate.”
Moving on to Austin, Rogers asked the Defense secretary to reconcile a plan he had previously discussed with Congress for “a safe, orderly withdrawal” from Afghanistan with Biden’s statements indicating he didn’t think such a withdrawal was possible, that it was always going to be “chaotic.”
Austin explained that curbing back on equipment and troop strength was the result of decisions made by the National Command Authority while blaming the chaotic situation that ensued leading up to the Aug. 31 withdrawal on the “collapse” of the Afghan National Army and the government.
“When those two things happened, it was going to be a chaotic situation,” he said.
Summarizing his questions, Rogers concluded by making the argument that “the collapse of the government and the collapse of the [Afghan] military was solely the responsibility of” the Biden administration, not top military officials or the Pentagon generally.
“I know y’all are trying to be careful politically, but it was the State Department and the White House that told you to make those drawdown of troops from 2,500 to 650 to zero,” he said. “It was the speed with which they done it that they carried out that order, that’s what caused the chaos that we had.
“If they’d allowed the DoD to be in a command situation we wouldn’t have had this problem,” Rogers continued. “We just have to admit this was the State Department and the White House that caused this catastrophe, not the Defense Department.”
All three defense officials faced a similar grilling from Republicans before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, including from Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who asked Milley point-blank if he planned on resigning.
“As a senior military officer, resigning is a really serious thing. It’s a political act if I’m resigning in protest,” he told Cotton.
“The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice, he doesn’t have to make those decisions just because we’re generals. And it would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken,” he added.
Austin, meanwhile, was forced to answer for the loss of Afghan life as well as those of U.S. military personnel to a suicide bombing just a few days before the final evacuation flight from Kabul as the Taliban took over the capital city.
“Tragically, lives were lost. Several Afghans were killed climbing aboard an aircraft on that first day,” Austin said. “Thirteen brave US service members and dozens of Afghan civilians were killed in a terrorist attack on the 26th. And we took as many as 10 innocent lives in a drone strike on the 29th.”
All were asked about their advice to President Joe Biden regarding keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation,” McKenzie said. “And I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.”
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