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Judith Miller: Biden and his generals tell two very different stories about Afghanistan.  Which one is true?


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President Joe Biden and his senior military officials appear to inhabit separate universes.

In testimony Tuesday before the Armed Services Committee Senator, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the chief of the United States Central Command, contradicted several of their commanders in the chief’s assertions about his controversial decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan.

In an August 19 interview, four days after the fall of Kabul, Biden denied that his top generals urged him to keep at least 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan. “No. No one told me that,” he said, adding the classic words of a politician, “that I remember”.

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But under oath on Tuesday, senior military officials insisted that senior military officials urged him to do so and that Biden heard them.

While the two people. Milley and McKenzie declined to discuss their personal conversations with the president, Milley said he has been recommending since the fall of 2020 under President Trump that the United States maintain between 2,500 and 3,500 troops in Afghanistan and that his opinion had “remained consistent throughout”.

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General McKenzie said General Austin “Scott” Miller, the top US general in Afghanistan, shared this view and that he, McKenzie, was “present” when Miller’s opinion was discussed with Biden. “I am convinced that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to him very carefully,” he said.

Calling the president “an honest and outspoken man,” Austin, appointed by Biden to the post of defense secretary, nevertheless contradicted Biden’s assertion. “Their contribution was received by the president and considered by the president, that’s for sure,” he said.

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In response to the testimony, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was quick to square the circle. During a press briefing after the hearing, she said Biden’s military advisers were “divided” over whether the United States should maintain a troop presence there. But she declined to say who urged Biden not to keep any residual force on the ground.

Advice on troop levels was just one of many issues that Biden’s senior military officials seemed to contradict his claims on. While Biden called the evacuation of 124,000 American and Afghan citizens and the withdrawal of American 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 “Eternal War” to accomplish his ever-expanding mission, despite a $ 2 trillion investment and 20 years of work. military and nation-building training.

“The results of a war like this – an outcome which is a strategic failure, the enemy is in command in Kabul – there is no other way to describe it,” Milley said. “This result,” he added, “is the cumulative effect of 20 years, not 20 days.”

While Biden called the evacuation of 124,000 American and Afghan citizens and the withdrawal of American forces an “extraordinary success”, Milley called it a “logistical success, but a strategic failure.”

In other words, four presidents share some of the blame for the failure to see that no amount of money could turn Afghanistan into Switzerland and that no military training would spur Afghan forces to continue fighting. an enemy who seemed to have endless strategic patience.

The military also contradicted Biden’s claim that the United States could leave Afghanistan with little increased risk of terrorism because Al Qaeda and Islamic State had been defeated. Both terrorist groups were alive, if not well, they said, and America’s withdrawal had increased the risk of a possible terrorist attack on American soil.

McKenzie said there was a “very real possibility” that Al Qaeda would recover within 12 to 36 months. Milley and McKenzie also agreed that the withdrawal made the counterterrorism mission “much more difficult, but not impossible.”

At times, generals seemed more critical of President Trump than Biden because of the US withdrawal agreement the former struck with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in early 2020.

They lambasted the original deal, saying the Afghan government’s lack of inclusion in the negotiations, as well as Biden’s determination to proceed with the pullout despite the Taliban’s violations of six of the seven pledges they had made had seriously undermined the credibility of the Afghan government and the morale and resolve of the military to continue fighting.

Although Afghan forces have suffered between 60,000 and 70,000 casualties in two decades of war, they said, the withdrawal of US advisers three years ago and, more recently, Biden’s determination to step down before the date. September 11 farm – a “tragic mistake”. Milley called it – and finally, the withdrawal of American contractors, troops, and air support had all helped trigger the Army morale collapse and meltdown in 11 days.

But failure has many fathers, and many of them were mentioned on Tuesday – the endemic corruption of the Afghan government, the flight of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and what Milley called America’s “mirror imagery” of the Afghanistan by the US military and policymakers.

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If there was one area of ​​agreement – but perhaps cold comfort to President Biden, whose popularity ratings have plummeted in recent weeks – it was the generals’ agreement with him that staying in Afghanistan would have ended the sole engagement of the Taliban. had made in Doha and honored – his vow not to kill American and Allied troops during the withdrawal.

Continuing the fight, the generals said, would have increased the risk not only to US forces but to US civilians in Afghanistan and likely required Biden to send an additional 15,000 to 20,000 troops there.

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