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Retired generals Milley, McKenzie detail regrets about Afghanistan withdrawal

Retired generals Milley, McKenzie detail regrets about Afghanistan withdrawal

Two of America’s highest-ranking retired generals testified on Tuesday that a series of errors during 20 years of war led to the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, but they also conceded that multiple mistakes were made by the Biden administration.

Gen. Mark Milley, a former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, former head of U.S. Central Command, appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Seated behind them were Gold Star families, or relatives of the 13 American service members who died during the withdrawal.

Committee Republicans slammed the Biden administration for a disastrous withdrawal, while Democratic lawmakers stressed the Afghanistan retreat can only be viewed in the lens of 20 years of decisions made across various administrations.

Milley, appearing before Congress for the first time since he stepped down from his role as the nation’s highest-ranking military official last fall, said decisions made during years of war led to the 2021 collapse of the Afghan government as the Taliban swept to power following the American retreat.

“I think the whole thing was a strategic failure,” Milley said, though he praised the U.S. military for carrying out its duty.

Milley faulted the Biden administration for what he said was a poorly timed Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO), or the withdrawal of nonessential civilian and military personnel, which did not come until mid-August, a little more than two weeks before the deadline to leave.

“The fundamental mistake, fundamental flaw was the timing,” Milley said. “I think that was too slow and too late. And that then caused a series of events that resulted in the very last couple of days. There’s a lot of other mistakes that [were] made along the way … [but] I think that was the key.”

Milley also testified that the U.S. lacked proper intelligence gathering ahead of the withdrawal because of the reduction of troops leading up to it.

“We blinded ourselves,” he said, noting the U.S. relied on electronic intelligence toward the withdrawal date. “But technology can’t read a person’s heart, they can’t see the negotiation that’s going on locally [and] we lost our ability to really sense that environment.”

Both Milley and McKenzie had recommended the U.S. maintain a small presence in Afghanistan of about 2,500 troops, but President Biden ultimately decided for a complete withdrawal by the end of August.

The exit of U.S. troops left a vacuum in the country that was quickly filled by the Taliban, despite the U.S. spending years training Afghan security forces. Afghan troops collapsed quickly as the Afghan president and his Cabinet fled the country, allowing the Taliban to take control within days.

While some estimates indicated the Afghan government would collapse in 24 months, the military assessed at the time that it could come as soon as the fall, Milley and McKenzie said. But even the military did not predict a collapse in summer 2021.

“We depended upon Afghan support to hold the perimeter. That melted away,” McKenzie said. “And that was probably the most significant immediate operational effect.”

Milley said the U.S. failed in the mission to train Afghan security troops, saying that failure stemmed from a cascade of decisions stretching back to the early 2000s.

“There’s a whole series of these that go way back in time that ultimately end up in a collapse of the Afghan security forces under intense pressure by the Taliban,” he told the committee.

Republican lawmakers spent a considerable amount of time hammering the Biden administration for the chaotic withdrawal, which was captured in images of people clinging to the wings of transportation aircraft in a desperate bid to leave the airport in the capital of Kabul.

And on Aug. 26, 2021, just days before the deadline for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan, an ISIS-K suicide bomber exploded at the airport’s Abbey Gate, killing 13 American troops and 170 Afghans.

Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) said the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has rippled across the world.

“American communities are less safe and the world is much more dangerous and unstable,” she said. “We are paying the price now, with conflicts roiling every corner of the globe.”

Democrats, however, fended off accusations against the Biden administration. They pointed to the Doha agreements, signed in 2020 under the Trump administration which stipulated the terms for a U.S. withdrawal, as the starting point of the events.

Former President Trump reduced troop levels to roughly 2,500 in January 2021 as Biden came into office. Biden later signaled in April 2021 that a full withdrawal would have to come by the end of August.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that the withdrawal was well underway by the time Biden entered office.

“We [should] really be transparent with the American people on everything that took place in the 20 years in Afghanistan, not just one piece,” said Meeks. “If we are serious and not playing politics with this issue.”

The White House has deflected blame for the Afghanistan withdrawal, largely pinning the blame on the Trump administration in a report last year.

In attendance at Tuesday’s hearing was retired Marine Sgt. Tyler Vargas-Andrews, who testified to Congress last spring that he had identified the suicide bomber before the explosion at Abbey Gate — but was unable to confirm he could engage the target when he ran it up the chain of command.

The claims from Vargas-Andrews sparked an investigation from the House Armed Services Committee, but relevant documents have not been turned over yet, according to Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Milley told lawmakers he was not familiar with the situation that Vargas-Andrews was in, but said if he had identified a hostile target, the “rules of engagement allow it.”

“You don’t have to ask permission,” he said. “Every single soldier, sailor, airman, marine, ship’s captain or fighter pilot has the right to self-defense.”

McKenzie also questioned the account from Vargas-Andrews, saying “there were a lot of threats that were flowing around that day.”

Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.) slammed McKenzie, accusing him of discrediting the account of Vargas-Andrews.

“It’s shameful,” Mills said.

Some lawmakers also questioned if the U.S. could have carried out a better evacuation had they used Bagram airbase, which American forces withdrew from in July.

McKenzie said it would not have been possible to use Bagram for evacuations given the troop levels they were operating with at the time.

Ultimately, the U.S. withdrawal plunged Afghanistan back into a humanitarian crisis, with the Taliban re-implementing harsh conditions in the country. The U.S. also left some $80 billion worth of equipment and supplies in the country and was not able to evacuate everyone, including some Americans, though the exact number of U.S. citizens left behind is unclear.

A State Department After Action Report last year found failures in both the Biden and Trump administrations in planning for the withdrawal.

McCaul, who launched his investigation of the Afghanistan withdrawal in January 2023, said Gold Star families and the American people deserve accountability for what he has called a botched evacuation that will impact Americans “for generations.”

“I believe that accountability ensures mistakes of the past are not repeated,” he said. “I launched this investigation to make sure that the mistakes made in Afghanistan never ever happen again.”

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