Six takeaways from military brass's Capitol Hill showdown

·6 min read

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gens. Mark Milley and Frank McKenzie spent more than 10 hours on Capitol Hill this week responding to questions about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, among other topics.

The three top defense officials testified in front of the Senate and House Armed Services committees on Tuesday and Wednesday, where they were repeatedly asked about their recommendations to President Joe Biden, the Americans left behind in Afghanistan, and the terror threat moving forward.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways:

Top military officials wanted troops to stay in Afghanistan

Both Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said that they believed approximately 2,500 troops should remain in Afghanistan. They refused to reveal details of their recommendations and conversations with Biden, though they provided their personal opinions.

“My assessment was, back in the fall of ‘20 and remained consistent throughout, that we should keep a steady state of 2,500 [troops] — and it could bounce up to 3,500, maybe, something like that — in order to move toward a negotiated solution,” Milley said.

It’s unclear what, if any, top military official supported the full withdrawal plan, even though Biden has previously touted a split in recommendations.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado, told the Washington Examiner Biden "completely disregarded their advice, they would've had a whole different approach to how fast to do a withdrawal."

"I don't know what he was thinking," he added. "He was acting apparently on his own best judgment and that, obviously, is very flawed judgment."

Extending past Aug. 31 would have required additional troops

There had been calls in the days and weeks leading up to the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline for Biden to keep the troops there beyond that date. But Milley explained that doing so would require a significant increase in the number of troops there in part because they would need to retake Bagram Air Base.

"If we stayed past the 31st, which, militarily, is feasible, but it would have required an additional commitment of significant amounts of forces, probably 18th Airborne Corps, 15,000, 20,000, maybe 25,000 troops. We would have had to reseize Bagram. We would have had to clear Kabul of the 6,000 Taliban that were already in Kabul," he explained.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously agreed in an Aug. 25 meeting to continue with the planned departure, in part because of the additional service members doing so would require and the danger they'd be in.

"That's what would have had to have happened beginning on the 1st. And that would have resulted in significant casualties on the U.S. side, and it would have placed American citizens that are still there at greater risk," Milley said.

Terror threat could regroup within six months

The threat against the U.S. from terrorist organizations within Afghanistan is smaller than it was on 9/11, Milley said, but he noted that groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS-K could rebuild within months.

“It’s a real possibility that in the not too distant future, 6, 23, 28, 24, 36 months, that kind of time frame for reconstitution of al Qaeda or ISIS, and it’s our job now, you know, under different conditions, but it’s our job to continue to protect the American citizens against attacks from Afghanistan,” he said.

Milley's timeline is in line with ones presented by Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Deputy CIA Director David Cohen earlier this month.

U.S. overestimated Afghan military and government

Austin addressed some “uncomfortable truths” about the withdrawal, including not “fully comprehend[ing] the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks” and that “we did not grasp the damaging effect of free and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders.”

He also noted that the military “failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which and for whom many of the Afghan forces would fight” and that “we couldn’t provide them with the will to win.”

Alternatively, McKenzie said he thought the U.S. should maintain a troop presence because withdrawing "would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan Military Forces and eventually the Afghan government."

Skepticism over reliance on over-the-horizon capabilities

Lawmakers in both chambers questioned the U.S. military's planned reliance on over-the-horizon airstrikes.

Both the Biden administration and defense officials have touted the over-the-horizon drone capabilities, but lawmakers pointed out the difficulties behind such a strategy, especially given the geography of the area.

Afghanistan is a landlocked country, making water-based attacks out of the question, and the U.S. doesn't have military bases in any neighboring country.

"This talk of over-the-horizon capability is a farce. Sure, we can send a drone out to take out a terrorist, but we didn't know where the terrorists are," ranking Rep. Mike Rogers said. "Without persistent [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] capabilities or reliable intelligence on the ground, that's impossible. We have neither of those now. It doesn't help that we need to fly that drone nearly 1,600 miles to reach Afghanistan, leaving little time on station, or that we have to fly over Pakistan, an ally of the Taliban, who could revoke overflight privileges at any time."

Lamborn described the U.S.'s plan as "very precarious," noting "the only thing we have right now is Pakistan is letting us do overflights. However, Pakistan's agreement could be withdrawn at any moment."

Milley isn't going anywhere and defends talking to reporters

Sen. Tom Cotton asked him why he hadn't resigned when Biden chose not to follow his advice on keeping troops in Afghanistan, and Milley said that doing so "is a really serious thing, and it's a political act if I'm resigning in protest" and called it "an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken."

Other lawmakers called for him to resign over his conversations with his Chinese counterpart. At the time, last October, China was nervous about a potential attack, and Milley reached out to his counterpart to deescalate the situation and to assure China that there would be no attack.

Milley admitted to speaking with various reporters with book deals during his testimony, which also angered some lawmakers.

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Tags: News, Mark Milley, Lloyd Austin, War in Afghanistan, Afghanistan, House Armed Services Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee

Original Author: Mike Brest

Original Location: Six takeaways from military brass's Capitol Hill showdown