President Joe Biden and his top military officials seem to inhabit separate universes.
In testimony Tuesday before the Senator Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, contradicted several of their commander in chief's assertions about his controversial decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan.
In an interview on Aug. 19, four days after Kabul fell, Biden denied that his top generals had urged him to keep at least 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "No. No one said that to me," he said, adding a politician's classic wiggle words, "that I can recall."
While both Gens. Milley and McKenzie declined to discuss their personal conversations with the president, Milley said he had been recommending since the fall of 2020 under President Trump that the U.S. keep between 2,500-3,500 troops in Afghanistan and that his opinion had "remained consistent throughout."
Gen. McKenzie said that Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, shared that view and that he, McKenzie, was "present" when Miller's opinion was discussed with Biden. "I am confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to him very thoughtfully," he said.
Calling the president "an honest and forthright man," Austin, Biden's appointee as secretary of defense, nevertheless contradicted Biden's claim. "Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure," he said.
In response to the testimony, White House press secretary Jen Psaki scrambled to square a circle. During a post-hearing press briefing, she said Biden's military advisers were "split" on whether the U.S. should maintain a troop presence there. But she declined to say who had urged Biden not to keep a residual force on the ground.
The advice about troop levels was only one of several issues about which Biden's top military brass seemed to contradict his claims. While Biden called the evacuation of 124,000 U.S. citizens and Afghans and the withdrawal of U.S. forces an "extraordinary success," Milley called it a "logistical success, but a strategic failure."
Milley suggested, however, that Biden was not the only president responsible for the failure of what critics call the "forever war" to accomplish its ever-expanding mission, despite $2 trillion worth of investment and 20 years of military training and nation-building.
"Outcomes in a war like this — an outcome that is a strategic failure, the enemy is in charge in Kabul — there's no way else to describe that," Milley said. "That outcome," he added, "is the cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days."
In other words, four presidents share some blame for the inability to see that no amount of money could turn Afghanistan into Switzerland and that no amount of military training would inspire the Afghan forces to keep fighting an enemy that seemed to have endless strategic patience.
The military men also contradicted Biden's claim that the U.S. could leave Afghanistan with little increase risk of terrorism because al Qaeda and the Islamic State had been defeated. Both terrorist groups were alive, if not well, they testified, and America's withdrawal had increased the risk of an eventual terrorist strike on the U.S. homeland.
McKenzie said there was a "very real possibility" that al Qaeda would reconstitute itself within 12 to 36 months. Milley and McKenzie also agreed that the withdrawal had made the counterterrorism mission "much harder, but not impossible."
At times, the generals seemed more critical of President Trump than Biden due to the U.S. withdrawal agreement that the former made with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in early 2020.
They lambasted the initial deal, saying that the failure to include the Afghan government in negotiations, as well as Biden's determination to proceed with the withdrawal despite the Taliban's violations of six of the seven commitments it made had seriously undermined the Afghan government's credibility and the Afghan military's morale and determination to keep fighting.
Although Afghan forces had suffered between 60,000 to 70,000 casualties in two decades of war, they said, the withdrawal of American advisers three years ago, and more recently Biden's determination to withdraw by a firm date of Sept. 11 – a "tragic mistake," Milley called it -- and finally, the withdrawal of American contractors, troops and air support had all helped trigger the collapse of the military's morale and its melting away in 11 days.
But failure has many fathers, and many of them were mentioned Tuesday – the Afghan government's endemic corruption, the flight of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and what Milley called America's "mirror-imaging" of Afghanistan by the American military and policy makers.
If there was one area of agreement – but perhaps cold comfort to President Biden, whose popularity ratings have been falling in recent weeks -- it was the generals' agreement with him that staying in Afghanistan would have triggered an end to the one pledge the Taliban had made in Doha and honored – its vow not to kill U.S. and allied troops during the withdrawal.
Continuing the fight, the generals said, would have increased the risk not only to American forces but to U.S. civilians in Afghanistan and probably required Biden to send between 15,000-20,000 more troops there.