President Joe Biden’s most senior military advisers urged him to leave thousands of troops in Afghanistan in order to prevent the collapse of the country’s coalition government, the officials testified on Tuesday, directly contradicting Biden’s own recounting of their advice in the leadup to the chaotic American military withdrawal from the country.
“I recommended we keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan,” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services in a hearing intended to examine the conclusion of the two-decade war in Afghanistan. To not do so, McKenzie said, would “inevitably” lead to the collapse of Afghan security forces “and, eventually, the Afghan government.”
McKenzie’s testimony—later backed up by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s own testimony that input on a potential stay-behind mission from McKenzie and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure”—flies in the face of Biden’s characterization of the military consensus behind his decision to follow through on the withdrawal.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in August, Biden said that he could recall “no one” who advised that 2,500 servicemembers should remain on the ground in Afghanistan to support the U.S.-backed government.
“Your military advisers 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,” Biden responded. “No one said that to me that I can recall.”
Later pressed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) on whether they had directly told the president that they believed a troop stay-behind was critical to the stability of the Afghan government, McKenzie and Milley stated that they wouldn’t detail what the Joint Chiefs chair called “executive discussions” with Biden. Austin, who initially responded to the same question by calling the president “an honest and forthright man,” backed up their right to not detail conversations with the president “in terms of what they specifically recommended.”
Cotton called the admission “shocking,” and other Republicans on the committee followed suit, with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) angrily telling the witnesses that they “do not have a duty to cover for the president when he is not telling the truth.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) blithely observed that the president had lied about their withdrawal advice, and stated that he didn’t feel it necessary to ask further questions, since “I think you’ve all testified to that effect now, repeatedly.”
The White House responded to The Daily Beast’s request for comment about the discrepancy with a link to a tweet by White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in which she said that Biden told Stephanopoulos that “consensus of top military advisors was 2500 troops staying meant escalation due to deal by the previous admin.”
Austin, McKenzie, and Milley “all reiterated” that point in their testimony, Psaki wrote.
In a press briefing held as the testimony was ongoing, Psaki told reporters that the president faced “recommendations made by a range of his advisers,” but refused to name the advisers who told him to totally withdraw troops from Afghanistan.“These conversations don’t happen in black and white or like you’re in a movie,” Psaki said. “There was no one who said, ‘Five years from now, we could have 2,500 troops there and that would be sustainable.’” Psaki did not detail where which advisers fell along the “split” over the potential stay-behind mission, calling the discussions “private conversations,” but emphasized that Biden was ultimately the one responsible for decisions on U.S. troop placement. “It’s his decision—he’s the commander-in-chief.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee’s chair, described Tuesday’s hearing as intended to help Congress understand “why and how” the Afghan state failed. While Republicans on the committee were swift out of the gate to place the blame on Biden—Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking Republican on the committee, called the situation in Kabul after the fall “a horror of the president’s own making”—members of both parties characterized the situation in Afghanistan as a human rights disaster and an effective surrender to allies of al Qaeda.
Members also expressed dismay that many applicants for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) granted to on-the-ground allies of the U.S. military remain trapped in the country nearly six weeks after the fall of Kabul to Taliban forces.
But in addition to questions about the number of Americans left behind in Afghanistan following the military withdrawal, Austin, McKenzie, and Milley were each grilled by committee members about a botched drone strike in the final days of the war that killed ten civilians—including seven children—as well as published accounts of Milley’s calls to a Chinese military counterpart intended to tamp down fears that former President Donald Trump might launch a nuclear strike in the final days of his presidency.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change,” Milley said, referring to “issues in the media” that had provoked “deep concern” among some of the members.
According to Milley, the calls to his Chinese counterpart were routine communications intended to prevent accidental escalation—and were prompted by “concerning intelligence which caused us to believe that the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.”
The calls were first reported in excerpts from Peril, a new book by reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa in which Milley was said to have told a Chinese military official that Trump would not unilaterally strike against China before Biden’s inauguration.
“My task at that time was to de-escalate,” Milley said.
As for revelations that he had agreed with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) that Trump was “crazy,” according to a transcript of a call between the two following the January 6 attack on Congress, Milley told the committee that he was “not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.”