White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday declined to say whether any military official urged President Biden to keep 2,500 troops Afghanistan, just hours after the Pentagon’s top brass told Congress they advised him against withdrawing all forces.
She said the president was presented with a ‘range of options,’ but ‘ultimately, regardless of the advice, it’s his decision.’
‘He’s the commander in chief. He’s the president. He makes decisions about that what’s in the national interest, and he believed we should end the war.’
Both Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley and head of US Central Command Frank McKenzie said that they had voiced an opinion to keep a small number of troops in Afghanistan to stave off Taliban control.
Psaki had tried to defend the president against the admissions even before her daily briefing.
‘As @POTUS told ABC, ending the war in Afghanistan was in our national interest. He said advice was split, but consensus of top military advisors was 2500 troops staying meant escalation due to deal by the previous admin., the Chairman, and GEN McKenzie all reiterated,’ she wrote on Twitter.
Pressed on what she meant by ‘split’ during the news briefing, Psaki said: ‘there are individuals who come forward with a range of recommendations on what the right path forward looks like. I’m not going to detail those from here. They’re private conversations and advice to the President of the United States.’
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say whether any military official advised President Biden that some 2,500 troops should be left in Afghanistan in a briefing Tuesday
Both Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley and head of US Central Command Frank McKenzie said that they had voiced an opinion to keep a small number of troops in Afghanistan to stave off Taliban control
McKenzie said he recommended 2,500 troops remain in Afghanistan. He said he’s confident Biden heard his advice, after the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos he couldn’t recall anyone advising him to leave troops in the country.
‘I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan …. I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces, and eventually the Afghan government.’
‘I was present when that discussion occurred and I’m confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to them very thoughtfully.’
‘I stated consistently that my position was, if you go below 2500 you’re going to look at a collapse of the Afghan military,’ he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
‘I did not foresee it to be days … I thought it would take months.’
Milley said that his ‘assessment was, back in the fall of , and remained consistent throughout, that we should keep a steady state of 2,500 [troops], and it could bounce up to, to 3,500 maybe, something like that, in order to move to a negotiated gated solution.’
‘My analysis was that an accelerated withdrawal without meeting specific and necessary conditions risks losing the substantial gains made in Afghanistan, damaging U.S. worldwide credibility and could precipitate a general collapse of the Afghan government, resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war,’ Milley said.
‘That was a year ago, my assessment remained consistent throughout.’
He declined to say exactly what he told the president.
Some 3500 U.S. troops were in the country when President Biden was inaugurated.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley said: ‘Here’s what I’ve learned so far: Number one, the president of the United States lied to the American people about the advice that you gave to him, about the military judgement that you provided for him.
‘I think you’ve all testified to that effect now repeatedly.’
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pressed the president on reports his top commanders had warned him against a full withdrawal during a sit down with the president on Aug. 19, four days after Kabul fell to the Taliban.
‘Your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline – they wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops,’ Stephanopoulos said to Biden.
‘No, they didn’t,’ the president pushed back. ‘It was split. That wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.’
‘No, they didn’t,’ the president pushed back. ‘It was split. That wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.’
‘They didn’t tell you they wanted troops to stay?’ Stephanopoulos asked.
‘No, not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a time frame – all troops, they didn’t argue against that,’ Biden reiterated.
Republicans accused President Biden of lying to the American people after senators heard on Tuesday that the commander-in-chief was told his senior generals believed 2500 U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan to prevent a Taliban takeover.
Sen. Tom Cotton brought up the interview during the hearing, asking Austin whether Biden was telling the truth when he said that no senior military adviser told him to leave a small military presence.
After saying that Biden was an ‘honest and forthright man’, he admitted: ‘Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure.
‘In terms of what they specifically recommended senator, as they just said, they’re not going to provide what they recommended in confidence.’
But Austin said he believed leaving those last 2,500 would have led to a fight with the Taliban that would lead to a greater surge in troops.
‘If you stayed there at a posture of 2,500 certainly you’d be in a fight with the Taliban and you’d have to reinforce yourself.’
Terrorist threat against U.S. soil
Meanwhile, Biden has repeatedly declared that the degradation of Al Qaeda meant the original mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan had been completed.
But senators were told that the Taliban remained a terrorist organization and had never broken its ties with Al Qaeda.
‘I have no illusions who we are dealing with,’ said Milley during his opening statement.
‘It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will further fracture into civil war. But we must continue to protect the United States of America and it people from terrorist attacks coming from Afghanistan.
‘We must remember that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with Al-Qaeda,’ Milley told lawmakers.
‘A reconstituted Al-Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility,’ he said, adding that opportunities for attack ‘could present themselves in the next 12-36 months.’
Asked if President Biden was being truthful when he said that al-Qaeda was no longer in Afghanistan, both Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that al-Qaeda has been and continues to be in Afghanistan, in a diminished state.
While President Biden’s reasoning for the hasty withdrawal has often been a Trump-era peace deal with the Taliban, Milley said that the Islamist group had not even been holding up their end of the deal.
Asked by Sen. Tom Cotton why he didn’t resign in protest of the withdrawal, Milley replied that such an act of ‘political defiance’ is a ‘serious thing,’ as he said that ‘My job is to provide advice … the president doesn’t have to agree with that advice.’
‘My advice is, don’t put specific dates’ on withdrawals, Milley said, noting that two presidents had made the devastating mistake. ‘Make things conditions-based.’
President Biden set a deadline of August 31 for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, extending Trump’s former May deadline.
The announcement triggered a whirlwind advance by the Taliban who claimed the capital Kabul on August 14, and a terrorist attack shortly thereafter took the lives of 180 people, including 13 US service members.
Impact of the Doha agreement
The two senior commanders also said the Doha agreement – signed under President Trump after negotiations with the Taliban in the Qatari capital – had a negative impact on the morale and performance of the Afghan security forces.
It essentially set a deadline for the U.S. withdrawal in return for the Taliban agreeing not to attack American forces.
As senators probed whether the Biden administration should have had a clearer idea of the fragile nature of the Afghan military, McKenzie and Milley pointed to the agreement and its damaging fallout.
McKenzie said: ‘It’s my judgement that the Doha agreement did negatively affect the performance of the Afghan forces, in particular by some of the actions the government of Afghanistan was required to take as part of that agreement.’
The deal required Kabul to release 5000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1000 Afghan government troops, as well as starting the withdrawal of thousands of American contractors who had supported local forces.
Milley added that in his assessment the Doha deal ‘did affect the morale of the Afghan security forces.’
Drone strike investigation
The three witnesses faced questions about the August 29 drone strike that killed 10 civilians but said they might better be answered during an afternoon session behind closed doors.
Austin said he had not yet been in touch with the aircrew responsible for the strike.
‘I’ve directed a three-star review of this incident,’ he said.
‘Gen. McKenzie did an initial investigation, and I directed a three-star review and so I won’t make any comments.’
The issue came up again later during the hearing when Gen. McKenzie was asked whether it was possible to adequately assess targets without intelligence assets on the ground.
He said he took full responsibility for the strike.
‘The matter is under investigation, but what I can tell you broadly, and to restate some things that I’ve said earlier, I am responsible for that,’ he said.
‘It happened in my area of responsibility, so I’m the responsible officer for that strike.’
And he said on this occasion the intelligence was ‘tragically wrong.’
‘I was under no pressure, and no one in my chain of command below me, was under any pressure to take that strike, we acted based on the intelligence read that we saw on the ground,’ he said.
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