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Milley contradicts Biden during testimony, says Afghan withdrawal 'strategic failure'

A trio of military leaders are facing a grilling by a bipartisan Senate panel.

Updated: September 28, 2021 - 2:24pm

U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, searched Tuesday to adequately explain to Congress America's chaotic and ultimately tragic Afghanistan troop withdrawal – ultimately using the borrowed words "a logistical success, but strategic failure."

Milley's response was to repeated questions by members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services about whether he agreed with President Biden's assessment that the effort had been an "extraordinary success."

Milley, in his first Capitol Hill testimony since the withdrawal last month, was joined before the committee by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command. 

None of the three would publicly testify as to what they said directly to Biden during closed-door meetings. However, each affirmed that their assessment during a mid-August talk with the president was that the U.S. should maintain 2,500 troops  in Afghanistan.

Biden has disputed the claim that his military advisers had recommended keeping troops on the ground in Afghanistan after the Aug. 31 withdrawal date.

All U.S. troops were out before the deadline, reached with the now-ruling Taliban. But days earlier, 13 U.S. service members were killed by a suicide bomber as they hastily evacuated hundreds of thousands of Americans. 

Earlier in the hearing, Milley addressed his much-publicized phone calls with China and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in late-2020 and early this year – saying the Trump administration was well aware of the conversations and that he did not try to "usurp power" by talking directly to the rival superpower and leader of the Democrat-controlled chamber.

"I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese, and it is my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent. My task at that time was to de-escalate," Miller told the committee, also in his first Capitol Hill testimony since the calls were made public in excerpts from a recently released book. 

"At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority or insert myself into the chain of command," Milley continued. "But I am expected to give my advice and ensure that the president is fully informed. My loyalty to this nation, its people and the Constitution hasn't changed and will never change."

Milley also said others were present on at least on of the two China calls and that a "readout" at least one of the conversations was produced, challenging the narrative that he went rogue because he feared Trump's mental state – as he was losing, then ultimately lost reelection.

He said then-Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller knew about his second call, with Chinese counterpart Gen. Li Zuocheng. 

His first call, in October of 2020, he said, was in fact ordered by then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper. 

He said the calls were made to quell fears from the Chinese government that Trump was getting ready to attack.

About reports on his conversation with Pelosi, in which she asked about then-President Trump's ability to launch nuclear weapons, Milley told the committee that he explained to the speaker the president does not possess the sole ability to launch nuclear weapons. 

Milley additionally testified that, in recent months, he had spoken to the authors of three separate books about the Trump administration – Bob Woodward and his co-author Robert Costa, who wrote the book "Peril," from which the disconcerting narrative surrounding Milley's call with Li arose; Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, both of the Washington Post, for their book "I Alone Can Fix It," and Michael C. Bender of The Wall Street Journal for his book "Frankly We Did Win This Election." 

Austin acknowledge the shortcomings in the withdrawal – particularly that intelligence failed to realize the Afghan military would fold so quickly – but defended his actions along with those of the rest of the U.S. military.

He also said he was "committed to making sure that threats are now allowed to develop ... that could create significant challenges for us in the homeland."

McKenzie assumed full responsibility for a drone attack after the withdrawal that mistakenly killed 10 Afghan civilians (including 7 children.)

"I was under no pressure from any quarter to conduct the strike – it was based on our intelligence read of the situation on the ground," McKenzie told the panel. "While in many cases we were right with our intelligence ... in this case we were wrong – tragically wrong."