Biden lost Afghanistan. Biden gave Afghanistan away. Trump wouldn’t have done this. Trump said he would do this but he was kidding around. The troops were ready to go, just waiting for his order to flood all of Afghanistan and stay a thousand years. Biden pulled out everyone and everything. Biden shamed America. This was worse than Benghazi.
Republicans had their talking points, but nothing is that simple. Democrats hold hearings. Everyone can ask questions. And the answers open all the possibilities. And the first hearing on these matters did just that:
The Pentagon leaders who presided over the Afghanistan war’s conclusion said Tuesday that they had predicted Kabul’s government and its military would “collapse” after the United States’ departure but refused to fault President Biden for withdrawing U.S. forces, even as they agreed the haphazard exit was a “strategic failure.”
This was too complicated. Kabul’s government and its military wouldn’t last five minutes. Everyone knew this. And withdrawing, pulling the plug on this long war was the right thing to do, and done well enough, given the circumstances, and a strategic failure. But the right thing to do! But maybe not:
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, and Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, chief of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they had advised both Biden and his predecessor, President Donald Trump, to keep at least 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan. It was his belief, Milley said, that “an accelerated withdrawal” risked losing “substantial gains” made over two decades of fighting in Afghanistan, “damaging U.S. worldwide credibility and resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general civil war.”
What? All three of these guys were saying that both Trump and Biden had been wrong. That was the military and geopolitical position. But they only give advice. This was the president’s decision, not theirs. But of course that didn’t matter:
Tuesday’s hearing marked the first time Milley, McKenzie and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have faced lawmakers publicly since last month’s evacuation from Kabul… Much of the session involved lawmakers, depending on their party, trying to enlist the generals’ support in blaming either Trump or Biden for the failures of the past and Afghanistan’s uncertain future.
They wouldn’t have any of that. They made their case to the president. The Republicans saw an opening:
Milley revealed during one of those exchanges that it was not until Aug. 25 -10 days after the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital and less than a week before the last U.S. military personnel left – that the Joint Chiefs of Staff made the “unanimous” recommendation to Biden that he withdraw all troops rather than prolong the evacuation beyond its Aug. 31 deadline. A day later, 13 service members and at least 170 Afghans were killed in a suicide bombing. Biden has highlighted that recommendation to defend his decision to leave Afghanistan, without mentioning that it came only after the Taliban had taken control of Kabul.
Republicans seized on those admissions to accuse Biden of lying to the American people about his military advisers’ recommendations and misleading the country about how fully the evacuation of Americans and eligible Afghans would be carried out. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) challenged Milley to explain why he didn’t resign in protest.
Milley dismissed the suggestion, calling the prospect of resigning an “incredible act of political defiance” that would be unfathomable.
Biden, Milley added, was under no obligation to heed the advice of his generals.
The opening closed. Read the Constitution. We have a civilian government, not a military government. Got it?
But they weren’t happy with Trump:
Austin, Milley and McKenzie, like others in the Biden administration, criticized the deal Trump struck with Taliban leaders to end the war, an agreement that disenfranchised the Afghan security forces and robbed the United States of leverage it could have used for a more controlled exit, they said.
“The intelligence was clear that if we did not leave in accordance with that agreement, the Taliban would recommence attacks on our forces,” Austin said.
Milley surmised there was “near certainty” of additional attacks on U.S. troops and “significant casualties” had the military tried to stay beyond the deadline. Remaining into September, the general said, would have required committing up to 25,000 additional personnel to reopen abandoned bases and retake Kabul, which by that time was being patrolled by an estimated 6,000 Taliban fighters.
Trump had left America no choice. Get out now or be in another and far bloodier war in Afghanistan for many more years. Get out now, completely, or order a whole lot of body bags. That was the Trump agreement with the Taliban. Trump thought that was fair. Milley and McKenzie and Austin seem to think that ruined everything, but they were polite in how they said that.
And there was that other matter:
Throughout the hearing, Milley drew special scrutiny from GOP lawmakers for conversations with his Chinese counterpart during the waning weeks of Trump’s presidency, when Milley assured him the United States was not about to attack Beijing’s interests. Milley defended the calls, revealed in the book “Peril” by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and reporter Robert Costa, as routine discussions that had been blessed and directed by Trump’s senior aides.
These were routine discussions that happen all the time. But there are no routine discussions anymore, anywhere. And this misses all the good stuff. Dana Milbank reports on that:
Perhaps nothing Republican lawmakers do anymore should come as a surprise, but their treatment of Gen. Mark A. Milley on Tuesday opened a new front in the war against civilized norms.
Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee didn’t just give a dressing down to the nation’s top soldier about the Afghanistan pullout; they assassinated his character and impugned his patriotism, accusing him of aiding the enemy and of placing his own vanity before the lives of the men and women serving under him.
And this is the man President Donald Trump nominated to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the man who donned fatigues and stood with Trump during his infamous Bible photo op after the gassing and removal of peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square.
But now Milley has been portrayed in the Bob Woodward and Robert Costa book “Peril” as reassuring an anxious Chinese military that Trump did not plan to attack China – an undertaking done at the request of Trump political appointees, Milley told the committee.
That didn’t matter:
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) found perfidy in Milley’s de-escalation attempts. “You’re giving a heads-up to the Chinese Communist Party,” he alleged.
After Milley acknowledged that he had spoken to Woodward and other authors from The Post and the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) accused him of leaking “private conversations with the president,” a charge Milley adamantly rejected.
Unmoved, Blackburn continued: “I think what you did with making time to talk to these authors, burnishing your image, building that bluster, but then not putting the focus on Afghanistan is disappointing to people that have served with you or under you, under your command, and it does not serve our nation well.”
Blackburn, refusing the chairman a response, continued berating him, Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Maybe we’re going to remember you three as the three that broke the military,” she said. “The military was one of the most trustworthy institutions. But in order to get a name in a book, in order to not be drawn into a political fight, what you have managed to do is to politicize the U.S. military.”
That’s the new Republican position. The military is broken and no longer trustworthy:
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) continued the character assault. “It seems to me you put a high priority on making sure that you were favorably portrayed by the D.C. press corps. Fair enough if that is your priority,” Hawley said, denying Milley a reply.
Hawley suggested this “distracted” Milley from “a rapidly deteriorating, frankly disastrous situation in Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of 13 soldiers. General, I think you should resign.”
That seems unlikely, and depressing:
Milley, with a chest full of ribbons and bags under his eyes, anticipated that he would hear from senators about his “Peril” portrayal. “I have served this nation for 42 years,” he said in his opening statement. “I’ve spent years in combat, and I’ve buried a lot of my troops who died while defending this country. 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.”
But Milley may not have appreciated that the merchants of anger on the Republican side of the dais would be competing to see which of them could land an outraged sound bite on “Hannity” or “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“The American people are livid.”
“They’re really upset.”
“They’re genuinely pissed off.”
That’s already out there, and as Milbank points out, rather useless:
In reality, Afghanistan is low on the list of subjects Americans regard as important. Poll after poll shows they don’t think the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting. Most aren’t happy about the chaotic nature of the withdrawal, but 77 percent of Americans supported a pullout, a recent Washington Post-ABC poll found, including 74 percent of Republicans.
But that didn’t matter:
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (who last year called for four Army divisions to put down racial-justice protests in U.S. cities) asked Milley why he didn’t resign in protest when President Biden (like Trump) decided against leaving troops in Afghanistan.
“This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we’re going to accept and do, or not,” he replied. “The principle of civilian control of the military is absolute; it’s critical to this republic.”
Yes, read the Constitution, and read the Trump Doha agreement too:
Had the senators listened, they would have learned from the generals that they uniformly opposed staying in Afghanistan beyond Aug. 31 because it would have resulted in “significant” U.S. casualties, that Trump’s withdrawal agreement with the Taliban was violated by the Taliban from the start and left Afghan security forces demoralized, and that Biden faced the very real risk of the situation escalating into another war if he didn’t withdraw.
But that was difficult to hear much beyond the Republicans’ heckling.
But that had to be done. Republicans heckling the military, mocking them and sneering at them, pleases the base now.
Who knew? Max Boot knows that well:
On Sept. 14, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa released excerpts from their new book “Peril.” The book revealed that, after the November election, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, twice called his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, to assure him that the United States’ political system was stable and the Trump administration had no intention of attacking China. Milley also assured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the military would not do “anything illegal, immoral or unethical,” and reviewed with senior officers the proper procedures for launching nuclear weapons.
And then everything went sideways:
Normally Republicans are quick to dismiss media reports as “fake news.” But, in this instance, Trump and his acolytes were quick to accept the Woodward-Costa reporting – without, of course, knowing the context because the book had not yet been published. Right-wingers simply invented their own narrative, in which Milley had violated his oath of office and betrayed the country.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused Milley of a “treasonous leak of classified information to the Chinese Communist Party in advance of a potential armed conflict,” and demanded that President Biden dismiss him. Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance suggested that Milley had engaged in a “coup.” Trump himself weighed in to label Milley a “Dumbass” and a “failed leader” who should “be tried for TREASON” because he had “been dealing with his Chinese counterpart behind the President’s back.”
But all of that is simply inventive total bullshit:
As it happens, Woodward and Costa never claimed that Milley exceeded his authority. And on Tuesday and Wednesday, in hearings of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Milley explained that he had just been doing his job while keeping his civilian superiors fully informed. He noted that 11 people were with him during his Jan. 8 call with Li, and, shortly after the call ended, he personally informed both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
Milley also testified that he had immediately informed acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller about his Jan. 8 call with Pelosi. Milley made clear that he was not attempting to usurp the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. He was only making sure that there would be no “illegal, unauthorized or accidental launch.”
But the point here may be too subtle for this crowd:
“By law, I am not in the chain of command, and I know that,” he said Tuesday. “However, by presidential directive and [Defense Department of Defense] instruction, I am in the chain of communication.”
He was doing his job, and everyone knew what he was doing and he was approved to do it, so Max Boot asks a question:
So, where are the retractions and apologies from Trump, Rubio and all the rest of the rabid partisans who accused a decorated combat veteran of treason based on a hasty misreading of a book excerpt?
They are not and will not be forthcoming; the only apology on offer Wednesday was from Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who didn’t make these vile accusations in the first place.
Milley wasn’t shamed. Others were:
At this week’s hearings, Republicans, rather than apologizing to Milley, blamed him for the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. They did this even though he made it clear that his own preference had been to keep a small U.S. force there – and even though many of those same Republicans had supported the pullout when it was first announced by Trump.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) demanded to know why Milley hadn’t resigned in protest over the pullout. Milley pointed out that this would create the very politicization of the military that Republicans decry: “It’s a political act if I’m resigning in protest.”
Cotton needs to rethink this, but all of the Republicans do too, and there was that second day of hearings:
President Biden’s top military adviser told lawmakers Wednesday that the war in Afghanistan was lost through pivotal decisions spanning four previous administrations, offering his latest defense of the commander in chief whose order to end the 20-year campaign and the treacherous evacuation that followed have come under withering scrutiny on Capitol Hill.
“It wasn’t lost in the last 20 days or even 20 months. There’s a cumulative effect to a series of strategic decisions that go way back,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley told the House Armed Services Committee during a rancorous hearing that further underscored the deep partisan split after last month’s deadly exit from Kabul. He cited multiple examples, including the United States’ decision to shift focus and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, and never “effectively dealing with Pakistan,” where throughout the war key U.S. adversaries found a haven.
“Whenever you get some phenomenon like a war that is lost – and it has been, in the sense of we accomplished our strategic task of protecting America against al-Qaeda, but certainly the end state is a whole lot different than what we wanted,” Milley said. “So whenever a phenomenon like that happens, there’s an awful lot of causal factors. And we’re going to have to figure that out. A lot of lessons learned here.”
Nothing is simple except on Fox News
As they did in the Senate a day earlier, the military leaders defended Biden’s prerogative as the civilian commander in chief to disagree with their recommendations. Austin told lawmakers he did “support the president’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan” and that he “did not support staying there forever.”
Milley on Tuesday told senators there was “near certainty” of additional attacks on U.S. troops and “significant casualties” had the military tried to stay beyond the Aug. 31 deadline. Remaining into September, the general said, would have required committing up to 25,000 additional personnel to reopen abandoned bases and retake Kabul, which by that time was being patrolled by an estimated 6,000 Taliban fighters.
Still uncertain is the future of U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Austin, Milley and McKenzie acknowledged that “over-the-horizon” capabilities are not as reliable as on-the-ground intelligence.
The conditions created by Taliban rule will “more likely than not” allow for the reemergence of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, Milley said, noting the Pentagon would watch for signs of that happening.
So, nothing was fixed. We have to do the best we can now. And that makes blame and shame irrelevant. Keep that in mind.