Joint Chiefs chairman calls Afghan war a ‘strategic failure’

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USAF / Julian Kemper / CC BY 2.0/MGN Images

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top U.S. military officer called the 20-year war in Afghanistan a “strategic failure” and told Congress on Tuesday that he believes the U.S. should have kept several thousand troops in the country to prevent the unexpectedly rapid takeover by the Taliban.

In his first congressional testimony on the tumultuous withdrawal, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to say what advice he gave President Joe Biden last spring when Biden was considering whether to keep any troops in Afghanistan.

But he told the Senate Armed Services Committee it was his personal opinion that at least 2,500 were needed to guard against a collapse of the Kabul government and a return to Taliban rule.

In a blunt assessment of a war that cost 2,461 American lives, Milley said the result was years in the making.

“Outcomes in a war like this, an outcome that is a strategic failure — the enemy is in charge in Kabul, there’s no way else to describe that — that is a cumulative effect of 20 years,” he said, adding that lessons need to be learned, including whether the U.S. military made the Afghans overly dependent on American technology in a mistaken effort to make the Afghan army look like the American army.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, who as head of Central Command had overseen the final months of the U.S. war, said he agreed with Milley that a few thousand troops should have been kept in Afghanistan, despite the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban in 2020 that all U.S. troops would leave by May 2021.

“I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and I also recommended early in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time, those were my personal views,” McKenzie said. “I also had a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government.”

The Senate hearing was at times contentious, as Republicans sought to portray Biden as having ignored advice from military officers and mischaracterized the military options he was presented last spring and summer. Several Republicans tried unsuccessfully to draw Milley, McKenzie and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin into commenting on the truthfulness of Biden’s statement to ABC News on Aug. 18, three days after the Taliban took control of Kabul, that no senior military commander had recommended against a full troop withdrawal when it was under discussion in the first months of Biden’s term.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Milley why he did not choose to resign after his advice was rejected.

Milley, who was appointed to his position as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President Donald Trump and retained by Biden, said it was his responsibility to provide the commander in chief with his best advice.

“The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice,” Milley said. “He doesn’t have to make those decisions just because we are generals. And it would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to resign just because my advice was not taken.”

Testifying alongside Milley and McKenzie, Austin defended the military’s execution of a frantic airlift from Kabul in August and asserted it will be “difficult but absolutely possible” to contain future threats from Afghanistan without troops on the ground. Under questioning, he, too, declined to say what advice he had given Biden about whether to make a full troop withdrawal.

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