Military leaders testify ‘strategic failure’ followed years of mistakes in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON —

The nation’s top general testified Tuesday that the American war in Afghanistan ended in “strategic failure,” a grim conclusion that acknowledged a long series of mistakes and miscalculations by the Pentagon’s leaders.

” The enemy is in Kabul,” Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley stated during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “There’s no other way to describe that.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who oversaw the most recent operations in Afghanistan, also testified at the hearing, which peeled back layer after layer of U.S. errors in judgment during the longest war in American history.

The Pentagon’s leaders said that U.S. military officers trained Afghan forces to be too dependent upon advanced technology. They didn’t realize the extent of corruption within local leaders and didn’t expect how badly the U.S. withdrawal would demoralize the Afghan government. They testified that these errors allowed the Taliban to rise to power much faster than U.S. officials anticipated.

Intelligence reports suggesting the Afghan forces could hold off longer were “a swing and a miss,” Milley said.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III testified during Tuesday's hearing.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III testified during Tuesday’s hearing.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The decision to pull out was originally made by President Trump, whose administration reached an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops by May 1, a little more than three months after he left office.

President Biden decided to move forward with a withdrawal, believing that it was no longer worthwhile to prop up the Afghan government, but he extended the deadline to Aug. 31.

Some of the testimony on Tuesday undermined Biden’s claims that military leaders did not not recommend leaving some troops in Afghanistan. McKenzie said he supported keeping 2,500 service members there, a recommendation that was made by Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who had commanded U.S. forces there from 2018 until July. He said that he was present at the discussion and that he believed the president listened to all of the suggestions. This recommendation was made by Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who had commanded U.S forces there from 649 until July.

McKenzie also said it was his belief that pulling out all U.S. troops “would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government.”

It was an unusually public airing of divisions between the president and military leaders — one that will probably reverberate throughout Washington as Biden continues to face political fallout over the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters patrol Kabul's airport on Aug. 31 after the U.S. military finished its withdrawal.

Taliban fighters patrol Kabul’s airport on Aug. 31 after the U.S. military finished its withdrawal.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, addressing reporters as the hearing was underway, said “there was a range of viewpoints” presented to Biden during internal debates. She stated that it was obvious that the withdrawal of troops from the country would cause the conflict to escalate and draw the U.S. forces into fighting with the Taliban.

” The president wasn’t willing to make this decision,” Psaki stated. “He did not think it was in the interests of the American people or the interests of our troops.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said lawmakers should resist the “temptation to close the book on Afghanistan and simply move on.”

“We must capture the lessons of the last two decades to ensure that our future counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere continue to hold violent extremists at bay,” he said.

Operations in Afghanistan will be more difficult now that there are no U.S. troops on the ground, McKenzie said. McKenzie testified that the military has the capability to “look in Afghanistan,” but it is limited.

“It is very difficult to do this,” he stated. “It is not impossible to do this.”

A reminder of how hard it can be to develop accurate intelligence came during the U.S. evacuation, which was bloodied by an Islamic State suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan civilians. The U.S. launched a drone attack against a car it believed was linked to terrorist operations, in fear of a second attack. This time, tragically we were wrong,” McKenzie testified. The airstrike killed 10 civilians, including seven children. The top Republican on the committee, Senator James M. Inhofe from Oklahoma, blamed Biden’s messy pullout. He failed to anticipate the events that would occur,” Inhofe stated. “So in August, we all witnessed the horror of the president’s own making.”

Caskets of the dead are carried at a mass funeral for civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike in August.

Caskets of the dead are carried at a mass funeral for civilians killed in a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan in August.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Austin, however, described the flawed operation as ultimately successful. U.S. officials had expected to evacuate no more than 80,000 people, he said, but 124,000 were flown to safety. Was it perfect? Of course not,” the Defense secretary said, adding that it nevertheless “exceeded expectations.”

Afghanistan wasn’t the only topic covered during the hearing. Milley said that he had phone conversations with his Chinese counterpart in the final days of Trump’s presidency. This was to avoid a potentially fatal misunderstanding between the two superpowers.

During the calls, which occurred before and after the November election, Milley assured Gen. Li Zuocheng, the top Chinese commander, that Trump was not planning a surprise attack. The discussions were revealed in “Peril,” a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

Trump suggested that Milley had committed treason. Republicans, however, have suggested that he may have subverted the chain command.

But Milley said that his conversations with Li were not secret. Milley testified that he was the one who coordinated the talks with Pentagon leadership, and that he then briefed White House Chief Of Staff Mark Meadows and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

Milley also testified that he was not undermining Trump’s intentions to attack China. Milley stated that he was worried that Chinese intelligence had mistakenly believed that a strike was imminent.

” My task was to deescalate at that moment,” Milley stated. Milley said, “My message was again consistent — ‘Stay tranquil, steady, and deescalate. We are not going to attack you.'”

Milley also described a call with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Pelosi expressed concerns that Trump was unstable, and she worried about his control of the country’s nuclear weapons, according to “Peril.”

The general told lawmakers that as a military advisor, he’s not in the “chain of command” for a nuclear strike, but he is in the “chain of communication.”

During his conversation with Pelosi, Milley testified, he said that “the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn’t launch them alone, and I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.”

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