WASHINGTON — Pentagon leaders publicly acknowledged on Tuesday that they advised President Biden not to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan ahead of a chaotic evacuation in which 13 U.S. service members died in a suicide bombing and 10 Afghan civilians were killed in an American drone strike.
During an expansive Senate hearing on the war in Afghanistan, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also defended his actions in the tumultuous last months of the Trump administration, insisting that calls to his Chinese counterpart and a meeting in which he told generals to alert him if the president tried to launch a nuclear weapon were part of his duties as the country’s top military officer.
General Milley was adamant that he did not go around his former boss. “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,” he said. “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.”
Some six hours of public testimony from senior Pentagon leaders were at times acrimonious and at times verging on political theater. Republican senators who had in the past defended President Donald J. Trump’s desire to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan demanded resignations from military leaders who carried out a Democratic president’s orders to withdraw. Democrats, who are traditionally tougher on military leaders, on this occasion, provided solace in the form of softer questioning and traced flaws back to the Trump administration.
Under repeated questioning from Republican senators, the Pentagon leaders broke with parts of Mr. Biden’s defense of the pullout, acknowledging that they had recommended leaving 2,500 American troops on the ground, and had warned that the Afghan government and army could collapse as early as the fall if the United States withdrew its forces.
General Milley called the “noncombatant evacuation” in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, last month “a logistical success but a strategic failure,” echoing the words of Senator Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, from earlier in the hearing.
Through it all, the burly and brash General Milley, the most senior military official in the country, sat before the Senate Armed Services Committee as both the protagonist and the antagonist for a narrative that changed with each senator. The other two military leaders invited to the hearing — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and the Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command — seemed almost like supporting actors at times, as the bulk of the questioning went to General Milley, who has recently been at the center of political turmoil related to revelations in several books about the Trump presidency.
General Milley said that military leaders were able to give their advice to Mr. Biden in the lead-up to the president’s April decision to withdraw. Those views, the general said, had not changed since November, when he recommended that Mr. Trump keep American troops in Afghanistan.
But, the general added, “Decision makers are not required, in any manner, shape or form, to follow that advice.”
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, asked General Milley why he did not resign after Mr. Biden rejected his advice to keep troops in Afghanistan.
“This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we’re going to accept and do or not. That’s not our job,” the general replied. He later added, “My dad didn’t get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima and those kids there at Abbey Gate, they don’t get a choice to resign,” the latter a reference to the American troops who were stationed at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in August.
“They can’t resign, so I’m not going to resign,” he said. “There’s no way. If the orders are illegal, we’re in a different place. But if the orders are legal from the civilian authority, I intend to carry them out.”
General Milley’s testimony on Tuesday was another chapter in the story of the final chaotic days of the Trump administration, with government officials on edge as they worried about what actions Mr. Trump might take. On Wednesday, Mr. Austin and Generals Milley and McKenzie are set to testify before the House Armed Services Committee.
Several Republican senators took General Milley to task both for his actions as described in the book “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post, and for talking about those actions to the authors.
General Milley said he was directed by Mark T. Esper, then the secretary of defense, to call his Chinese counterpart on Oct. 30 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 other senior U.S. officials, including Mike Pompeo, then the secretary of state, were aware of the calls.
“I know, I am certain that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese, and it was my directed responsibility by the secretary to convey that intent to the Chinese,” he said. “My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”
In an unintentionally funny interchange with Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, General Milley acknowledged that he spoke with several authors who have recently written books about the final months of the Trump presidency. All of the books present the general’s actions to keep Mr. Trump in check in a favorable light.
“Woodward yes, Costa no,” General Milley replied, when asked if he had spoken to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Costa for their book.
The general said he had not read any of the books. At that, Ms. Blackburn asked him to read them and report back about whether they accurately portrayed his actions.
General Milley also addressed a frantic phone call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California two days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. A transcript of the call in the book said the general agreed with Ms. Pelosi’s characterization of Mr. Trump as “crazy.”
Speaking to the Senate panel, General Milley said, “On 8 January, Speaker of the House Pelosi called me to inquire about the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process. She was concerned and made various personal references characterizing the president. I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn’t launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.”
Later that afternoon, he said, he called the generals involved in that process to “refresh on these procedures.”
Democrats, like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, asked whether leaving troops in Afghanistan for another year would have made a difference. Mr. Austin said no.
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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 sooner, and what the Pentagon was doing now to help evacuate the remaining Americans and Afghans who want to leave the country.
Mr. Austin, a retired 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 the Taliban firing a shot — surprised top commanders.
“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.
In his opening remarks and throughout the hearing, Mr. Austin defended the Biden administration’s decisions to close the sprawling Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, in early July, and to target resources toward defending Kabul’s international airport as the main gateway in and out of the country. He 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 said. “And it would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned — and that was to protect and defend the embassy, which was some 30 miles away.”
Republicans said the troop withdrawal would allow Al Qaeda and the Islamic State to rebuild and use Afghanistan as a launching pad for future attacks against Americans and the U.S. homeland.
General McKenzie expressed reservations about whether the United States could block the terrorist groups from developing that kind of safe haven now that American troops had left the country.
“That’s yet to be seen,” General McKenzie said in response to a question. “We could get to that point, but I do not yet have that level of confidence.”
Mr. Biden has vowed to prevent Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from rebuilding to the point where they could attack Americans or the United States.
But General McKenzie’s response underscored how difficult that task will be and was somewhat more pessimistic than the assessments of other top Pentagon officials at the hearing.
General Milley said that a “reconstituted Al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility.” He added: “And those conditions, to include activity in ungoverned spaces, could present themselves in the next 12 to 36 months.”