June 24, 2024 9:18 am

Ex-US generals who oversaw Afghan exit describe chaos and challenges of withdrawal

Two ex-American generals who led the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 have testified to Congress.

Mark Milley, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and Kenneth McKenzie, who led US Central Command, testified for the first time since retiring.

Republican lawmakers held President Joe Biden responsible for the disastrous exit, while Democrats blamed the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban.

But the two generals seemed unwilling to back either party’s argument.

Instead, they said that both the Biden and Trump administrations had a role in the disastrous withdrawal, as did the administrations that preceded them.

The Doha agreement – a deal former President Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban that set the terms for the US departure – “pulled the rug out, morale wise” of both the Afghan security forces and government, Mr Milley said.

But he added later that the “fundamental flaw” of the US exit was the timing of the Biden administration’s decision to order a civilian evacuation in Afghanistan. He said it had come “too slow and too late”.

He also emphasised that he had advised top American officials that the US “needed to maintain a minimum force of 2,500 troops on the ground” in order to prevent the Taliban from seizing control.

“Without this support, it was my view at the time, that it was a matter of ‘when, not if’ the Afghan government would collapse and the Taliban would take control,” said Mr Milley.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country as the Taliban marched toward Kabul was then “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, he said.

Still, both men maintained that no single factor alone led to the US failure in Afghanistan, and they seemed to support the idea that the US should review the entire 20-year history of the conflict, not just its conclusion – a point supported by Democrats.

“We helped build an army, a state but we could not build a nation,” Mr Milley said, calling the outcome a “strategic failure”.

They also acknowledged that remaining in Afghanistan would probably have put American troops in harm’s way, as the Taliban would have restarted its fight with the US for staying on beyond an agreed 31 August departure deadline, Mr McKenzie said, citing intelligence reports he had reviewed.

Both men said the Taliban, which they characterised as a terrorist organisation, harbours militants who wish to target the US.

“They themselves [the Taliban] don’t have a desire to attack us and our homeland, but they do harbour entities and organisations that do have a desire to do that,” Mr McKenzie said.

Getty Images A US plane departing AfghanistanGetty Images

Family members of American soldiers who died in the suicide blast at the Kabul airport and others who served in Afghanistan attended the hearing. They watched as the former military leaders gave their sober assessments about the US withdrawal.

As it was the two retired generals’ first time testifying since leaving the service, both were able to be more candid in their criticisms of US civilian officials and policymakers.

Much of their criticism was directed at the US Department of State for not issuing the order to evacuate American civilians months earlier.

Mr McKenzie and Mr Milley both testified that the US still does not know how many Americans were in Afghanistan, and it remains unclear how many were able to safely get out.

While much of the hearing rehashed old arguments made by Democrats and Republicans, there was some bipartisan news welcomed by lawmakers in the room.

Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, announced that the White House and Congressional leaders had agreed to grant 12,000 more special immigrant visas for Afghan nationals who assisted the US.

He said it would be included in a budget deal that is expected to pass this week.

Veterans of the war in Afghanistan and lawmakers have been fighting to expand the number of visas for Afghanistan immigrants, as only about 7,000 remained. The US has issued about 1,000 per month recently, raising fears that they could run out.

US troops pulled out of Afghanistan after 20 years – the country’s longest ever war – and it left many Afghans who supported American forces in danger, particularly as viable exits from the country closed.

The violent withdrawal dented perceptions of Mr Biden’s international competence. Republicans have since seized on the failed exit as key line of attack ahead of the November presidential election.

The Biden administration and Democrats have regularly blamed Donald Trump for negotiating the agreement with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal, arguing that his decisions “severely constrained” Mr Biden’s options.

A government watchdog found that both administrations were to blame for the disastrous withdrawal that saw Afghan forces overwhelmed.

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