Afghanistan updates: Milley, Austin face grilling in Senate hearing

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(NEW YORK) — It’s been nearly one month since the U.S. withdrew all U.S. troops from Afghanistan on President Joe Biden’s order, ending a chaotic evacuation operation after the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban seized the capital Kabul.

Since then, the U.S. has facilitated the departure of at least 85 U.S. citizens and 79 lawful permanent residents, according to a senior State Department official. In the coming days, they expect to evacuate around 100 more U.S. citizens and residents from the Kabul area.

Even as the last American troops were flown out to meet Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline, other Americans who wanted to flee the country were left behind. The Biden administration is now focused on a “diplomatic mission” to help them leave but some hoping to evacuate are still stuck in the country. Meanwhile, the Taliban announced its new “caretaker” government that includes men with U.S. bounties on their heads — and no women.

Top Pentagon leaders appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday amid bipartisan criticism of the chaotic withdrawal and on the failure to anticipate the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country.

Here are the latest developments. All times Eastern:

Sep 28, 3:53 pm
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.”

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.

Sep 28, 3:34 pm
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.

Sep 28, 12:20 pm
Milley pushes back on calls to resign, knocks tying withdrawal to specific date

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark Milley why, given that advice to leave 2,500 troops behind, wasn’t taken by the president, he hasn’t resigned. Milley said it would be “an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken.”

“As a senior military officer, resigning is a really serious thing. It’s a political act if I’m resigning in protest,” Milley said. “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.”

Appearing to break publicly with President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Milley was later asked about the pace of withdrawal and said that he was opposed to putting a date to military withdrawals, as “two presidents in a row” have done, saying conditions should always be in place. He added, though, that risks to Americans would have increased if the U.S. remained past Sept. 1.

“Senator, as a matter of professional advice, I would advise any leader, don’t put date-certains on end dates. Make things, conditions-based. Two presidents in a row put dates on it. I don’t think — that’s, my advice, don’t put specific dates,” Milley said.

Sep 28, 11:30 am
Lawmakers press officials on recommendation to Biden to leave 2500 troops

The nation’s military leaders — Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, have all said their recommendations on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan were given to President Biden and heard.

GOP Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pressed Milley on whether he specifically recommended to Biden that 2,500 troops stay in Afghanistan, as McKenzie had suggested. Milley wouldn’t comment on his personal conversations but gave his assessment from last fall and added he’s “always candid” with the president.

“My assessment was back in the fall of ’20 and remained consistent throughout that we should keep a steady state of 2,500, could bounce up to 3,500, something like that, to move towards the negotiated gated solution,” he said.

Cotton then turned to Austin and raised the question to him, citing Biden’s interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month in which he said that no military leader advised him to leave a small troop presence in Afghanistan.

“Senator Cotton, I believe that — first of all, I know the president to be an honest and forthright man. And secondly,” Austin said, before Cotton interrupted him to ask again if their recommendations got to Biden.

“Their input was received by the president and considered by the president for sure,” Austin said. “In terms of what they specifically recommended, senator, they just, as they just said, they’re not going to provide what they recommended in confidence.”

Sep 28, 10:50 am
Top general recommended Biden leave 2500 troops behind

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said his recommendation was to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan beyond Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline, believing a full withdrawal would lead to inevitable collapse.

“I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we would maintain 4,500 at that time — those are my personal views. I also had a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces, and eventually the Afghan government,” McKenzie said.

Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview in August that “no one” that “he can recall” advised him to keep a force of 2,500 troops behind.

Earlier in the hearing, both McKenzie and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, affirmed to the committee that the Doha agreement with the Taliban hurt the morale of Afghan security forces.

“The Doha agreement did negatively affect the performance of the Afghan forces,” McKenzie said.

Sep 28, 10:46 am
Milley defends US withdrawal, calls to China in Afghanistan testimony

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan while acknowledging the U.S. did not foresee an 11-day takeover by the Taliban, placing some blame on the Afghan government and army.

“”This has been a 10-year multi-administration drawdown, not a 19-month or a 19-day withdrawal,” Milley said in his opening testimony.

He also said that a week after the election he received an order to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by mid-January, but days later, that order was rescinded.

For the larger part of his opening testimony, Milley took the chance to defend contacts with his Chinese counterparts in the final days of former President Donald Trump’s presidency and offered a “walk-through of all these events” amid reporting he broke the regular chain of command.

“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 is fully informed,” he said.

Sep 28, 10:17 am
Austin acknolwledges ‘uncomfortable truths’ of US withdrawal

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his opening statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing on Afghanistan, defended the timeline and tactics of the U.S. military’s withdrawal ahead of Aug. 31 but acknowledged the Taliban takeover the country happened much faster than leaders had expected.

“We helped build a state, Mr. Chairman, but we could not forge a nation,” he said. “The fact that the Afghan army 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 then listed what he called “uncomfortable truths.”

“That we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement, and that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and finally, that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which and for whom many of the Afghan forces would fight,” he said.

Austin said staying past Aug. 31 would have “would have greatly imperiled our people and our mission” as the Taliban’s offer to cooperate ended on Sept. 1, opening U.S. troops to Taliban attack.

He also took on the issue of why Bagram Air Base was not kept open, saying it would have taken 5,000 troops to secure it and, being 30 miles from Kabul, would have significantly helped the main mission of protecting the embassy.

Sep 28, 9:30 am
Top Pentagon officials testify before Senate on withdrawal

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will face tough questions Tuesday from the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday on the U.S. military’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan. He’s also expected to address reporting that he went outside the regular chain of command with calls to China in the final days of former President Donald Trump’s presidency.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, are also scheduled to appear before the Senate panel alongside Milley. Senators are expected to press the top Pentagon leaders on decisions surrounding the evacuation and of ongoing threats of terrorism in Afghanistan without a U.S. presence on the ground.

It’s been nearly one month since President Joe Biden withdrew all U.S. troops, ending an evacuation operation after the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban seized the capital Kabul. In those final days, a U.S. drone strike killed at least 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children, an event lawmakers are expected to press military leaders upon on Tuesday.

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