Army Gen. Mark A. Milley (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Military brass testify before Congress.

The generals both contradicted President Biden and supported his assessment of what happened on the ground.
Isaac Saul Sep 29, 2021

Today's read: ⏰ 11 minutes.

We're covering the testimony from top military leaders before Congress yesterday. Remember: we have a podcast version of our newsletters that you can listen to by clicking here.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs the media on Afghanistan, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

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Quick hits.

  1. Former Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida has won an intra-party leadership vote and will become the nation's next prime minister. (The win)
  2. YouTube is blocking prominent anti-vaccine activists and blocking all anti-vaccine content on its platform. (The decision)
  3. Progressives in the House of Representatives released a statement saying they would sink the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package if a promise to also pass the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package isn't kept. (The threat)
  4. Republicans are at odds over the bipartisan infrastructure bill, with some Senate Republicans and business groups lobbying to pass it and Republican leaders in the House hoping to sink it. (The divide)
  5. Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for George W. Bush's reelection, is running for Texas lieutenant governor as a Democrat. (The announcement)

Today's topic.

The testimony. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley and the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, all testified before Congress. They were called up to testify about the withdrawal from Afghanistan and were slated to be questioned about the chaos and failures of the withdrawal. However, Gen. Milley also fielded questions related to several tell-all books about the Trump administration, in which he was often a central character and conceded to being a source for the authors.

Some definitions, before we jump in:

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman: The highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. This is Gen. Milley. While he serves as an advisor to the president and top military brass, he does not have operational command authority over the military. This is a Senate-confirmed position.

Defense Secretary: The chief executive officer and leader of the Defense Department. This is Lloyd Austin. His military command is second only to the president, the commander-in-chief. This too is a Senate-confirmed position.

Head of U.S. Central Command: CENTCOM is one of eleven unified combatant commands of the Defense Department. Its area of responsibility includes the Middle East. It has been the main presence in Afghanistan for most of the war. Gen. McKenzie has been the command leader since 2019.

Yesterday, Milley and McKenzie both refused to discuss specific conversations with President Biden, but made it clear that their personal opinion was the U.S. should have kept 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and that withdrawing those troops would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military. Last month, President Biden denied that his top military advisors wanted to keep troops in Afghanistan, telling ABC that "No one said that to me that I can recall."

Gen. McKenzie also contradicted Biden, saying "the war on terror is not over, and the war in Afghanistan is not over." Defense Secretary Austin said military leaders had been planning for a non-combatant evacuation of Kabul as early as spring. He also defended abandoning Bagram Air Base, the center of U.S. operations in Afghanistan for 20 years, saying it would have required an additional 5,000 troops to hold and provided little value for evacuations. Leaving Bagram was one of the most common criticisms of the strategy on the ground in Afghanistan.  "Staying at Bagram — even for counterterrorism purposes — meant staying at war in Afghanistan, something that the president made clear he would not do," Austin said.

Gen. Milley also defended his communications with a Chinese counterpart which were recently cited in Bob Woodward and Robert Costa's new book Peril, in which Milley purportedly told China's top general that he would alert him if the U.S. was preparing an attack. Milley said his calls were appropriate and meant as a de-escalation tactic.

"I am specifically directed to communicate with the Chinese by Department of Defense guidance, the policy dialogue system. These military-to-military communications at the highest level are critical to the security of the United States in order to deconflict military actions, manage crises, and prevent war between great powers that are armed with the world's most deadliest weapons," he said. "I know, I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it is my directed responsibility, and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary, to convey that intent to the Chinese."

Milley also insisted that the president's chief of staff Mark Meadows and top military brass were made aware of the calls to his Chinese counterpart.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take.


What the left is saying.

The left is split on the testimony, with some saying it supports Biden's telling of events and others arguing the generals contradicted him.

In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin said "defense officials just debunked much of the criticism of Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal."

"Austin effectively conceded in his testimony that three presidents never acknowledged (or at least never appreciated) that the mission of the war — to create a viable Afghan government and military — failed spectacularly," she wrote. "Austin explained: 'We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement, that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight.'

"The idea that the administration did not prepare for the collapse of the Afghan government was false as well. Both Milley and Austin described the advance planning in detail, including the pre-positioning of troops and rehearsing a noncombatant evacuation," she wrote. "Moreover, the Monday-morning quarterbacking that the administration should have retained Bagram air base appears to have been misplaced. Milley explained: 'The U.S. military could not secure both Bagram airfield and [Hamid Karzai International Airport] with the troops available. All together securing Bagram would have required approximately 5-6,000 additional troops assuming no indigenous partner force was available.' ... Austin also explained: '[Retaining Bagram] would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away. That distance from Kabul also rendered Bagram of little value in the evacuation.'"

In USA Today, Gregg Zoroya said Biden was warned of the looming disaster but ignored the intelligence he had.

"Milley declined, as all presidential advisers do, to share his specific words to Biden. But the general made it easy to read between lines," Zoroya wrote. "Milley said his opinion about what would happen if U.S. forces were too rapidly pulled out of Afghanistan had been formed a year ago... Milley described to senators what he always believed would flow from a precipitous withdrawal of American troops. His list reads like a litany of horrors: The Afghan military and government would collapse. There would be civil war or a Taliban takeover. A region where one neighboring country, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons, would grow unstable. Violent extremism would be boosted globally. And the resulting human misery in Afghanistan would include 'significant numbers of refugees, a degradation in health, schools (and) women’s rights, and revenge killings.'

"Biden evidently listened to all of this," Zoroya said. "Yet, he remained unfazed, so powerful was his urge to fulfill a campaign promise to bring home the relatively small number of troops deployed to Afghanistan."

In Slate, Fred Kaplan illustrated the details showing nobody was blameless.

"Is President Joe Biden to blame, or should responsibility be spread across four presidents, 11 congresses, debilitating aspects of the way America trains client-states to fight wars, and the corruption endemic in the recently deposed Afghan government?" he asked. "Milley shrewdly diagnosed the failure: The U.S., he said, trained the Afghan soldiers in a way that made them too dependent on our technology and our support. Take away that support, and collapse was inevitable... This analysis is true, but not remotely new... Why didn’t they warn of these problems, or suggest solutions to them, back when he could have spoken and acted with on-the-ground authority?

"The Republicans on the committee have their credibility gaps as well," he wrote. "They howled in anger on Tuesday over Biden’s mishandled evacuation, which went against the advice of military officers and civilian officials. But last year, when the GOP still controlled the Senate, they didn’t hold a single hearing about the Doha agreement, which Trump signed with the Taliban. That accord, which was negotiated without the Afghan government’s participation, mandated the total U.S. withdrawal—which Republicans are criticizing now."


What the right is saying.

The right was critical of Joe Biden's withdrawal and of Gen. Milley for his interactions with the media.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the Generals contradicted Biden on Afghanistan.

"President Biden hopes the political fallout from his botched Afghanistan withdrawal will fade quickly, but Tuesday’s Senate hearing with the secretary of Defense and two top generals doesn’t cast his decisions in a better light," the board wrote. "The hearing underscored that the President acted against the advice of the military in yanking the residual U.S. force from the country. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie both made clear in their testimony that they recommended that about 2,500 U.S. troops stay in Afghanistan to delay a Taliban takeover.

"That’s not what Mr. Biden said he was told," it added. "Asked in an ABC News interview days after the August fall of Kabul if his military advisers urged him to maintain America’s small footprint in the country, Mr. Biden said, 'No one said that to me that I can recall.' The scandal isn’t that the President ignored military advice—he’s the decision-maker. It’s his refusal to own his decision. Mr. Biden wants political credit for ending America’s involvement in Afghanistan, but he’s not willing to take the political risk of admitting he overruled the brass in the process."

In The New York Post, Michael Goodwin said Biden "alone made the fateful decisions that created the chaotic and deadly withdrawal."

"We now know for certain what was suspected all along — that the president rejected the advice of his top military aides about how to reduce the troop numbers while keeping the Taliban in check. He also falsely claimed to the public that al Qaeda was no longer in Afghanistan and declared the withdrawal a ringing success... All three also said al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan and, as Milley put, is still at war with us. And none dared call the conclusion a success.

"The immediate impact of his fateful decision for a complete withdrawal by Aug. 31 included the deaths of 13 service members in the airport suicide bomb attack," Goodwin added. "In addition, there are continuing reports that some Afghans who helped in our 20-year war effort are being executed, some of them after being tortured... The immediate consequences are obviously devastating, and the long-range reality is that another war is more likely than lasting peace. Beyond al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to strike us, giving Taliban control of Afghanistan completes what one analyst calls a mega-terror state in the region, with Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan sharing borders."

In the American Conservative, Declan Leary called Gen. Milley "the most dangerous man in America."

"Perhaps the most significant part of Milley’s testimony, though, was his answer to allegations in the media—taken from the Bob Woodward and Costa’s forthcoming book Peril—that he had promised to warn China if the president ever ordered an attack against them, and that he had made senior military officials swear an oath not to take orders from the commander-in-chief unless Milley himself was involved," Leary wrote. "He insisted that the two calls in question were well within his routine responsibilities as chairman, but simply neglected to comment on the allegations that he had promised to warn his Chinese counterpart of any U.S. action—which, of course, had been the most concerning part of the report by far.

"All in all, the general’s congressional testimony reinforced what many have speculated ever since reports emerged that Secretary of Defense [Mark] Esper had in fact known about the 'secret' calls to China: That in talking to Woodward, Costa, and others, Milley exaggerated his own role as a Resistance hero, perhaps underestimating the blowback from the right and others interested in civilian control of the military. It’s worth considering why he might have done that... the general’s activity—courting powerful factions of the race-obsessed left, appending himself to key politicians of both parties, chasing media attention left and right—suggests he does not intend to pursue the quiet life of military-industrial complex sinecures automatically reserved for retiring four-stars. At 63, Milley’s days in uniform are numbered—but 2024 is just around the corner."


My take.

It was a fascinating few hours. Frankly, I was shocked at how candid the military brass were — and seemingly how often their testimony eviscerated narratives from each side. Of course, all of this should be taken with the caveat that these men are appointed officials and members of the administration — so their words need not come with more inherent credibility than those of most politicians.

Still, though, the generals didn't make their opinions unknown: They knew withdrawing troops would lead to Afghanistan collapsing, even if they didn't expect it to happen so quickly. They agreed with President Biden's assessment that the Doha agreement, negotiated by Trump, demoralized troops and also forced a binary decision: Stay in Afghanistan and escalate the war, or withdraw and end it. This was something Biden said repeatedly (and was criticized for) but with which the generals unanimously agreed: If we had stayed past August 31, the Taliban would have ramped up their attacks, and 2,500 U.S. troops wouldn't have been enough to hold them back.

The generals also supported another Biden narrative: That what they pulled off was a logistical success, even if the end of the war was a strategic failure. Austin said we only planned to evacuate 70,000-80,000 people, but managed to get out more than 124,000, with aircrafts taking off every 45 minutes. According to Austin, "Not a single sortie was missed for maintenance, fuel, or logistical problems. It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in just 17 days." The generals also noted that Americans have continued to be evacuated since the withdrawal, something many critics said wouldn't happen.

I'm less convinced about the defense of retreating from Bagram Air Base. Milley argued that such a move would have required thousands more troops, but we ended up having to deploy thousands more troops anyway when everything went to hell. Many Afghanistan vets and reporters without a reputation to protect have insisted keeping Bagram secure until the withdrawal was over would have been prudent.

As for Milley, my position remains: He should resign. That he has now conceded to spending so much time with reporters on and off the record is no comfort, and he dodged the most important question about his contacts with his Chinese counterparts. In a laughably hard-to-believe comment, he told the Committee he had not read the books and didn't know if he was portrayed accurately, as if he somehow could have missed the front-page stories over the last few weeks — or as if he operates habitually as an anonymous source without tracking how his words play out in the press. It's hard to imagine he has many supporters left or the full trust of the military brass around him, especially now that we know for certain he acted as an anonymous source in several books and news reports (as a journalist, I love it; if I were a colleague of Milley's, perhaps not so much). Several retired generals and even Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (who helped spark the impeachment of Trump) have all called on Milley to resign and criticized his actions.

Milley did make news by informing the Committee that chief of staff Mark Meadows and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were briefed on the conversations with his Chinese counterpart, which should only solidify what I also said about those stories: That they make Trump look worse than anyone. That Meadows and Pompeo knew the top military officer was contradicting, undermining and actively working to contain a president he viewed as unstable and dangerous — and apparently did nothing — is telling.

All told, the testimony was fascinating and the takeaways seem clear: Afghanistan was a multi-president, two-decade-long failure that ended with two bad options. Biden took the least bad one he could muster, and executed it in a way that brought some predictable disasters. Now everyone is going to point fingers when they all share blame for the failures.

That includes former President Obama, the Republicans who supported Trump's Doha deal, the military generals who repeatedly lied to us about winning the war and compounded those lies with strategic failures, and George W. Bush, who led us into the war and kept us there in the first place.


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A story that matters.

Corporate America has become a central vaccine enforcer in fighting Covid-19. Yesterday, United Airlines said it will terminate 593 employees who refused to get vaccinated. 96% of United's workers have complied. Job postings on Indeed that require vaccination spiked 24% in the last month, and the number is rising. Google, Facebook, Netflix, Walt Disney and Lyft have all implemented vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, it’s happening at the governmental level, too: A federal appeals court ruled Monday that New York City can require all its teachers to be vaccinated, and health care workers in New York City just hit a deadline to get vaccinated. Axios has the story.


Numbers. 🤓

  • 58%. The percentage of Afghanistan war veterans who said they back President Biden's decision to withdraw.
  • 42%. The percentage who say they "strongly support" the move.
  • 48%. The percentage of Afghanistan veterans who described America's involvement in Afghanistan as "successful."
  • 27%. The percentage of all voters who describe America's involvement in Afghanistan as "successful."
  • 53%. The percentage of Afghanistan war veterans who said they still support the withdrawal even if it means the Taliban is in charge of the country.
  • 37%. The percentage of Afghanistan veterans who said they "strongly approve" of former President Trump's handling of foreign policy there, the highest of any president who was in office during the war.

Have a nice day. 🙂

The Los Angeles district attorney has moved to dismiss nearly 60,000 marijuana convictions in the state. I know this might be controversial for some, but I do not think people should have criminal records for marijuana offenses in a state where it's now legal. California approved recreational cannabis five years ago, but thousands of residents were still unable to get jobs, housing, and other services because of criminal records related to cannabis.

Now, officials say they have identified about 58,000 cases eligible for dismissal. "Dismissing these convictions means the possibility of a better future to thousands of disenfranchised people who are receiving this long-needed relief," District Attorney George Gascón said Monday. Because a person can have more than one conviction, it's not immediately clear just how many people are impacted by the announcement, but a similar dismissal of 66,000 cases in 2020 affected around 53,000 people. CNN has the story.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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