President Biden hopes the political fallout from his botched withdrawal from Afghanistan wears off quickly, but Tuesday’s Senate hearing with the Defense Secretary and two high-ranking generals does not cast his decisions in a better light .
The hearing pointed out that the president acted against the advice of the military by pulling the remaining US forces out of the country. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie both made it clear in their testimony that they recommended that about 2,500 US troops remain in Afghanistan to delay a takeover. by the Taliban.
That’s not what Mr. Biden said he was told. When asked in an interview with ABC News days after the fall of Kabul in August whether his military advisers had urged him to maintain America’s small footprint in the country, Mr Biden said: ” No one told me that if I remember. “
The scandal is not that the president ignored military advice, he is the decision maker. It is his refusal to take responsibility for his decision. Mr Biden wants political credit for ending US involvement in Afghanistan, but he’s not willing to take the political risk of admitting that he canceled the bravery in the process.
The generals also undermined Mr. Biden’s turn of their advice as the chaotic withdrawal was underway. He said the generals unanimously back his August 31 deadline for the departure of US troops. But as General Milley confirmed during questioning of Senator Tom Cotton, this notice was given on August 25 â 10 days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
Waiting that long essentially presented the generals with a fait accompli, since the Taliban were already entrenched in Kabul. It didn’t have to be that way. Once it became clear that Kabul was going to fall in mid-August, the United States could have told the Taliban it was going to secure a large perimeter around Kabul airport and control the city until then. that the withdrawal of the Americans and the Afghan allies be complete.
This would have allowed for a more orderly start and potentially less loss of life, even if it meant extending the August 31 deadline. But Mr Biden wanted to leave immediately, so he made another rotten tactical decision as a result of military advice rather than his own will.
The administration’s sunny assurances of the pullout’s impact on US national security have also been undermined by authorities. When Arizona Senator Mark Kelly asked General McKenzie, “Are you convinced that we can deny organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS the ability to use Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorist activity?” the general said, “I wouldn’t say I’m confident.”
General Milley also called the result in Afghanistan a “strategic failure” because “the enemy is in command in Kabul” – a break in tone for an administration that has made the Taliban a potential partner. He has always insisted it was a “logistical success” – a dubious designation of an operation which, despite an impressive number of flights from Kabul, killed 13 Americans and a drone strike by mistake that killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children.
General Milley was also in the hot seat for reports of his actions in the late Trump years, as relayed in a book by reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. The book paints a picture of an independent general on national security during and after the 2020 election, examining nuclear protocols and calling his Chinese counterpart to tell him he would warn him if President Trump started a war.
General Milley has confirmed that he has spoken to Mr Woodward, as well as to other journalists writing books on the final days of the Trump administration. Still, he said his communications with China were standard practice and he wouldn’t say if his description in the books was accurate because he hadn’t read them.
It’s a dodge. General Milley has surely seen the Washington Post report on the book which describes him as undertaking extraordinary efforts to bypass a president. Even though this portrayal was sensationalized by the authors – as we have warned it could be – it damaged Americans’ perception of civilian control over the military.
Yet General Milley has not taken responsibility for this entirely predictable outcome, nor has Mr. Biden the consequences of his retreat to Afghanistan. The Afghan withdrawal is the biggest humiliation in American foreign policy in decades. The damage is compounded by the failure of accountability, starting with the Commander-in-Chief.
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Appeared in the print edition of September 29, 2021 under the title “The Brass Faces the Afghan Music”.