Testifying before the Senate Armed Services committee Tuesday, head of U.S. Central Command General Frank McKenzie confirmed that he initially recommended President Biden maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, contradicting the president’s claim that the military unanimously recommended total withdrawal.
McKenzie also warned that a full withdrawal would lead inexorably to the collapse of the Afghan forces and government.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley, also present at the hearing, echoed McKenzie’s assertion, saying they both believed that a small footprint should be maintained until the Taliban complied with certain conditions for withdrawal. While neither general would say explicitly that they conveyed that opinion personally to President Biden, McKenzie said it “would be reasonable to conclude that” their evaluations were delivered to Biden ahead of the withdrawal.
During an ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos earlier this month, Biden denied that military advisors urged him to sustain a small military presence in the country and reconsider the withdrawal timeline.
“Your military advisors 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?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“No. No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden said.
After the generals’ revelation, some Republican lawmakers have slammed Biden’s original televised statement as a lie and have criticized Milley for continuing to serve despite Biden rejecting his military assessment that a steady state of U.S. forces was necessary to negotiated a “gated withdrawal.”
Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote in a statement: “President Biden lied when he told the American people that nobody urged him to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. Today, under oath, General McKenzie flatly contradicted the President. This is the worst American foreign policy disaster in a generation and the President is trying to cover his a** with political spin.”
Questioning Milley, Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked him why he hadn’t resigned if his guidance was ignored, to which the general responded that the president isn’t obliged to agree with or adopt military advice.
“It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken,” he said. “..The principle of civilian control of the military is absolute, it’s critical to this republic.”
Determined to not let the decades-long Afghanistan conflict haunt his presidency as it had his predecessors’, Biden was committed to a full withdrawal, despite resistance from top military officials, journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa explain in their book Peril.
The “gated solution” Milley referenced at Tuesday’s hearing was first proposed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who advocated withdrawal in three or four stages to create leverage for diplomatic discussions. Biden was unpersuaded by the argument, according to Woodward and Costa.