Joe Biden’s top military advisers confirmed this morning that they uniformly recommended that the president keep a force of at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. This contradicts not only the comments he made in an August 19 interview but also one of the central pillars of the administration’s defense of its withdrawal.
“No one said that to me that I can recall,” he told George Stephanopoulos in response to a question about whether he had received advice to leave troops in the country.
It is, of course, the president’s prerogative to buck what he considers to be bad advice, but the problem is that he denied receiving that advice, contrary to what Generals Frank McKenzie and Mark Milley testified earlier today. “I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time. Those are my personal views,” said McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command.
In addition to that, their testimony amounts to the most conclusive public debunking of claims made by Biden and his top aides that they simply had not expected such a swift Taliban takeover to result from the withdrawal.
Consider the president’s August 16 address in the immediate aftermath of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban. Blaming America’s Afghan allies, a move that garnered significant criticism at the time, Biden claimed that his team had simply been caught flat-footed:
We were clear-eyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency.
But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you. The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.
So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.
Those remarks contradicted contemporaneous reports that intelligence assessments predicted the Taliban would swiftly take the country. On August 17, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan issued a non-denial of those reports at the daily White House press briefing: “I’m not actually familiar with the intelligence assessments you’re describing. But I also don’t want to get into specific intelligence products. And one thing I will not do from this podium or anywhere else is talk about what a different component of the interagency did or didn’t do.”
But the generals’ testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee provides more evidence that the president was made aware that a swift Taliban takeover would result from his decision.
“I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government,” McKenzie said during his testimony today.
While the generals were careful not to reveal details from their discussions with the president, they were clear that Biden had received and considered all the advice that they offered.
Confirming he was present when General Scott Miller, who served as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan until July, made that same recommendation, McKenzie later said, “I’m confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to him very thoughtfully.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s claim about the Afghan government folding more quickly than expected has become a key feature of the administration’s defenses of the withdrawal.
“Nothing I or anyone else saw indicated a collapse of the government and the security forces in eleven days,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told House lawmakers this month.
That narrow assertion might technically be true, but top military leaders are now on the record saying that they advised that such a collapse would inevitably happen.