'You broke the military': Milley, Austin set for second Congressional grilling on Afghanistan

Senators on Tuesday asked three top military leaders if they had submitted their resignations over Afghanistan.
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Top military leaders appear Sept. 28 before the Senate
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (center) appears before the Senate Sept. 28.
(Stefani Reynolds-Pool / Getty Images)

Top American military leaders are set for another round of intense congressional grilling on Wednesday, following a day-long Tuesday session that at times featured blistering criticism of their part in the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

The Tuesday hearing placed on the griddle Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. Frank McKenzie; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.

Amid roughly six hours of questions that aimed to detangle what caused the U.S. withdrawal to fall into deadly chaos, comments from one senator seemed to summarize GOP views of Austin, Milley, and McKenzie.

"Maybe we're going to remember you three as the three that broke the military," said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)

Citing her constituents who include special operations forces from the Army's Fort Campbell, Ky., Blackburn said that Americans no longer trust the three witnesses.

"How do you look young men in the eye, that are coming to our military academy days, and who want to serve, and say, 'You can depend on me, I've got your back?'" she asked. "OK you know what, I think a lot of these families right now, they don't feel like you have their back." 

Blackburn and others repeatedly reminded the witnesses that young American service members were killed while trying to help others evacuate the international airport in Kabul.

Austin acknowledged in his opening statement that many people died over the course of the exit. These included "several Afghans killed climbing aboard an aircraft on that first day; 13 brave U.S. service members and dozens of Afghan civilians killed in a terrorist attack on the 26th; and we took as many as 10 innocent lives in a drone strike on the 29th," Austin said.

One of the recurring themes at the hearing was whether the three witnesses agreed with Army Gen. Scott Miller that 2,500 troops be left inside the country. 

Miller, the last commander to lead U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, testified earlier this month before a closed session in the Senate. During that appearance, Miller told lawmakers that he had informed Austin, Milley, and McKenzie that he was "opposed to the total withdrawal," according to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

The witnesses on Tuesday confirmed that they made clear to President Joe Biden that they, too, wanted to keep troops in-country.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark) asked Milley why he didn't resign when Biden ignored the military advice. 

Milley countered that the president is not bound to accept the advice.

"It would be an incredible act of political defiance, for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken," Milley said. "This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we are going to accept and do or not. That's not our job."

Some outside pundits praised the three witnesses. Among the supporters are anti-Trump commentator Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army four star general who himself came under scrutiny after the Persian Gulf War when soldiers said they believed he had violated a cease-fire agreement in Iraq. Others faulted them — as did many lawmakers.

During the Tuesday hearing, Blackburn excoriated the three witnesses, and expressed shock that they had not relinquished their posts.

"What you have managed to do is to politicize the U.S. military, to downgrade our reputation with our allies," Blackburn said. "Nobody has resigned. Nobody has submitted their resignation."

All three witnesses will appear on Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee for additional testimony on the end of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.