US military officials would have kept troops in Afghanistan

Two top US military officials said they believed that a few thousand troops should have remained in Afghanistan and acknowledged other tactical and intelligence failings during the chaotic withdrawal of armed forces from the country.

During testimony before the Senate armed services committee on Tuesday, Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Frank McKenzie, US commander of troops in the region, both made clear their personal views were at odds with the decision President Joe Biden took to withdraw all troops by his September 11 deadline.

“My view is that 2,500 was an appropriate number to remain, and if we went below that number in fact we would probably witness a collapse in the Afghan government and in the Afghan military,” McKenzie said in testimony, in comments echoed by Milley.

Neither divulged the advice they privately transmitted to Biden. In an August 18 interview with ABC News following the collapse of Kabul, Biden said “no one said that to me that I can recall” when challenged that his military advisers had recommended keeping a force presence of 2,500 troops.

The Biden administration’s chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan triggered domestic and international backlash, as the Taliban returned to power while 13 US military troops and more than 100 Afghans were killed.

Biden has defended his decision, blaming the Afghan national security forces for failing to fight and describing the evacuation of more than 120,000 people in a few days as an “extraordinary success”. 

Milley described the evacuation as a tactical success, but said the overall outcome of the war was a “strategic failure”. He also acknowledged that military commanders had not foreseen how quickly the Afghanistan government would crumble as troops were departing.

“[W]e absolutely missed the rapid 11-day collapse of the Afghan military, the collapse of their government,” he said.

Milley said it may have been wrong to seek to train and equip the Afghanistan army in what amounted to a “mirror-image” of the US military, which resulted in making the Afghan military “too dependent on technology . . . [and] our capabilities”.

He added that withdrawing US advisers three years earlier also hampered the US’s ability to assess the wherewithal and morale of the Afghan national security forces. “You can’t measure the human heart with a machine; you got to be there,” he said.

Milley also responded to criticism over two calls he made to tell his Chinese counterpart that he would warn them if the US was planning an attack during the waning days of the Trump administration, according to a new book, Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. Milley acknowledged speaking to Woodward and other individuals writing books about the Trump administration.

Critics argued that Milley’s calls to China had undermined the president and civilian control of the military.

He said the two calls, on October 30 and January 8, were generated by “concerning intelligence” that indicated Beijing was worried the US was going to attack them, saying he was tasked to de-escalate.

“I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese,” he told the Senate. “My job at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: ‘Stay calm, steady, and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you’.”

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