John Ullyot, Unlike many Congressional hearings, the Senate and House Armed Services committee sessions on Afghanistan this week actually produced two important pieces of news, both of which were devastating for President Biden and his senior team.
The revelations on Capitol Hill by Secretary Lloyd Austin and Generals Mark Milley and Kenneth McKenzie only added to the intense scrutiny and bipartisan calls for accountability over Biden’s chaotic and poorly planned exit from that country recently.
First, both generals acknowledged that they recommended to Biden that we keep at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to ensure an orderly exit of American citizens and Afghan partners, and that we not pull our forces out beforehand, as Biden chose to do in the face of their advice. This directly contradicts what Biden said in an ABC News interview on August 18, when he told host George Stephanopoulos, “No one said that to me that I can recall.”
We all know the disastrous consequences of Biden’s decision not to follow his generals’ advice in this case, yet for the commander-in-chief to deny to the American people that he even received that advice is unprecedented, and flat-out disgraceful when it led directly to the deaths of 13 of our bravest men and women in uniform. Indeed, for this “recklessness,” Senator Marsha Blackburn following the hearing became one of the first to call for Biden to resign.
The generals also testified that Biden’s bungled exit from Afghanistan leaves us less safe to combat terrorism against the U.S., which was the sole reason we initially invaded the country 20 years ago. Democrat Senator Mark Kelly asked General McKenzie, “Are you confident that we can deny organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS the ability to use Afghanistan as a launch pad for terrorist activity?” The general demurred: “I would not say I’m confident that it’s going to be on the ground yet. We could get to that point but I don’t yet have that level of confidence.” So much for a twenty-year presence in Afghanistan that Biden ended in chaos, handing the country back to the Taliban.
The second nugget of news to come out of this week’s hearings was General Milley’s acknowledgement that he participated in interviews this year with several reporters writing books critical of President Trump. Under questioning from Senator Blackburn, Milley admitted to speaking with Bob Woodward, Carol Leonnig, Phil Rucker and Michael Bender for their accounts of the final months of the Trump presidency. In Milley’s view, he does not need to seek prior approval for these interviews, as they are part of his job in providing transparency to the public on military leadership.
Woodward’s book details phone conversations that Milley had with his Chinese counterpart before the 2020 election, in which Milley reportedly said that President Trump was not going to attack China, and that, in the event that changed, Milley would call the Chinese general to give him a heads’ up. At the Senate hearing, Milley confirmed the calls but said they were, in fact, approved ahead of time as part of a strategy to de-escalate tensions with the Chinese military. This had been refuted a week beforehand by the then-Pentagon chief of staff Kash Patel, who said, “Calling a foreign counterpart and discussing operational capabilities against that enemy is literally treasonous. [Neither] the White House, nor the Office of the Secretary of Defense authorized the chairman to conduct any calls with Chinese officials regarding operations.” Either way, the best observation about the China phone calls at the hearing came from Republican Senator Dan Sullivan, who told Milley that if the roles were reversed, and the Chinese General promised to give his American counterpart a heads’ up on Chinese action against Taiwan, China’s President Xi would have him executed.
General Milley’s testimony on his interaction with reporters for their books on Trump prompted a number of senators and congressmen to call for his resignation or firing. After the Senate hearing, President Trump did not mince words on Milley’s interviews and their link to Biden’s Afghanistan exit debacle: “No wonder the Afghanistan withdrawal was such a disaster. ‘General’ Milley spent all of his time talking to these Fake Book writers. That’s not a Soldier or General, that’s a Public Relations agent. America will continue losing with Milley and woke television Generals who are only looking to be stars!”
This week’s hearings on Afghanistan were the newest reputational train wreck for Biden and his military leaders, who already faced demands for accountability over their incompetent exit from that country. Testimony about the president’s dishonesty in his recent interview and our weaker posture against terrorists from the region, as well as confirmation of Milley’s freelancing with reporters, only strengthen those calls. Recent polling suggests that Biden’s response to those calls will shape his party’s fortunes in a big way going forward.