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Senators Question Milley and Austin on End of War in Afghanistan

Top U.S. military officers acknowledged publicly for the first time that they had advised President Biden not to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan ahead of the chaotic evacuation during which 13 American service members were killed.

Appearing before a Senate panel, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that military leaders were able to give their advice to the president during the lead-up to Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw. But, the general said, “Decision makers are not required in any manner or form to follow that advice.”

General Milley testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command. Both men, along with General Milley, were said to have advised Mr. Biden not to withdraw all troops. During the hearing, Generals Milley and McKenzie confirmed that.

Senators pressed the three men on why the Pentagon failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and Afghan military, why the United States did not start evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans from the country sooner, and whether Mr. Biden heeded their advice to keep a counterterrorism force of 2,500 on the ground.

“It was a logistical success but a strategic failure,” General Milley said, echoing the words of Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, from earlier in the hearing.

Mr. Austin, a former four-star Army general who served in Afghanistan, conceded that the collapse of the Afghan army in the final weeks of the war — in many cases without firing a shot — took top commanders by surprise.

“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we didn’t grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders,” Mr. Austin said, referring to Ashraf Ghani, the former president of Afghanistan who fled the country as the Taliban took control.

“We failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight,” Mr. Austin said.

The hearing was also the first opportunity for General Milley to address criticism about his actions during the last tumultuous months of the Trump administration.

“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” General Milley said in his opening remarks. “I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a bedrock principle essential to this republic and I am committed to ensuring the military stays clear of domestic politics.”

General Milley used part of his opening comments to address the turmoil of recent revelations in the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. He said he made an Oct. 30 call to his Chinese counterpart, just before the November presidential elections, because there was “intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.” He added that senior U.S. officials, including Mark Esper, the secretary of defense at the time, and Mike Pompeo, then the secretary of state, were aware of the calls.

Mr. Austin defended the Biden administration’s decision to close the sprawling Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, in early July and instead focus on defending Kabul’s international airport as the main gateway in and out of the country, and acknowledged that the Pentagon badly misjudged the Afghan military’s will to fight.

“Retaining Bagram would have required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way, just to operate and defend it,” Mr. Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the first of two days of congressional hearings on Afghanistan. “And it would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: that was to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away.”

The secretary also defended the administration’s decision to end the frantic 17-day evacuation airlift by Aug. 31. “The Taliban made clear that their cooperation would end on the first of September, and as you know, we faced grave and growing threats from ISIS-K,” Mr. Austin said, referring to the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan. “Staying longer than we did would have made it even more dangerous for our people and would not have significantly changed the number of evacuees we could get out.”

General Milley echoed the danger that staying past the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline posed to U.S. troops.

“On the 1st of September we were going to go back to war again with the Taliban,” he said. “That would have resulted in significant casualties on the U.S. side and would have put American citizens still on the ground there at significant risk.”

But in an acknowledgment of the ongoing repercussions of the Taliban’s takeover of the country, General Milley said that American credibility around the world has been damaged by the ignominious end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Pressed by Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, General Milley said that American “credibility with allies and partners around the world and with adversaries is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to. And I think ‘damage’ is one word that could be used, yes.”

Mr. Austin and Generals Milley and McKenzie are set to testify before a House panel on Wednesday.