From Heather Cox Richardson this AM:
Indeed, the political news out of Washington must all be read with an eye to the 2022 election, including the other big story from today: the testimony of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Before his testimony, Milley submitted a statement that was quietly remarkable. A highly decorated career soldier, Milley was appointed by former president Trump and, after making the mistake of walking with Trump across Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square in June 2020 for the former president’s ill-received photo-op with a Bible, has become a principled and outspoken advocate for the military’s defense of the United States Constitution, even, when necessary, against domestic enemies.
In his statement, Milley laid out the course of the war in Afghanistan. He noted that in 20 years there, more than 800,000 U.S. military personnel served; 2,461 were killed in action, 20,698 were wounded, and countless others came home with internal scars. Milley expressed his opinion that their service in Afghanistan prevented another attack on America from terrorists based there.
Then Milley talked of our exit from the country, emphasizing that it is a mistake to focus only on our rushed exit in August. In 2011, we began a long-term drawdown of troops from their peak of 97,000 U.S. troops and 41,000 NATO troops. On February 29, 2020, when the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban, there were 12,600 U.S. troops, 8,000 NATO troops, and 10,500 contractors in Afghanistan. With that agreement, known as the Doha Agreement, we agreed to withdraw if the Taliban met seven conditions that would lead to a deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban, while we agreed to eight conditions.
Milley wrote that the Taliban honored only one of its seven required conditions: it did not attack U.S. personnel. It did not cut ties to al Qaeda, and it significantly increased, rather than decreased, its attacks on Afghan civilians. Nonetheless, in the 8 months after the agreement, “we reduced US military forces from 12,600 to 6,800, NATO forces from 8,000 to 5,400 and US contractors from 9,700 to 7,900….”
On November 9, 2020, six days after the presidential election, Milley and then–Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recommended stopping the withdrawal until the Taliban met the required conditions. Two days later, on November 11, then-president Trump ordered the military to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by January 15, 2021. Blindsided, military officers were able to talk Trump out of that rushed timetable, but on November 17, Trump ordered Milley to reduce troop levels to 2,500 no later than January 15.
So, when President Biden took office, only about 3,500 U.S. troops, 5,400 NATO troops, and 6,300 contractors were still in Afghanistan, leaving him with the problem that he would have either to leave altogether or to put in more troops in anticipation of resumed hostilities with the Taliban. Biden ordered a review of the situation and ultimately decided to withdraw from the country altogether.
Milley went on to explain some of the issues that have preoccupied pundits. He said he saw no predictions that the Afghan Army would melt away in 11 days. “The speed, scale and scope of the collapse was a surprise.” He said that holding the Bagram air base would have required 5,000–6,000 additional troops and that staying on after the August 31 deadline would have required 15,000–20,000 more troops, who would have faced significant risks, including the likelihood of casualties. “While it was militarily feasible,” he wrote, “we assessed the cost to be extraordinarily high…. Therefore, we unanimously recommended that the military mission be transitioned on 31 August to a diplomatic mission in order to get out the remaining American citizens.” In response to a question from Senator King, Milley put it more clearly: “On the first of September, we were going to go to war again with the Taliban. Of that there was no doubt.”
In short, Milley’s statement was a clear explanation of the last year and a half of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and it placed the blame for the messy withdrawal largely on Trump, rather than Biden, despite Milley's own advice to Biden that the new president keep in place the troops remaining there when he took office.
But that did not reflect the questioning of the Republicans on the committee. They focused not on finding out about the failures—or successes—of our time in Afghanistan, but on attacking Milley himself. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted that the Republicans “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.” Milley explained that recent reports of his having communicated with his Chinese counterpart to assure him the U.S. would not attack in the last day's of Trump's term were incomplete: he was authorized to do so by law, did so with the knowledge and advice of Esper and other administration officials, and made the calls with a significant number of people in the room.
Nonetheless, Republicans berated him, often not permitting him to respond. They seemed to be following the pattern established at hearings during the Trump administration of creating sound bites for later right-wing media stories. In this case, though, there is a deeper story: they are continuing the right-wing media’s undermining of the military officers who defended our Constitution.
The Republicans accused Milley of working with “the Chinese Communist Party” and leaking “private conversations with the president.” Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) suggested that Milley was personally responsible for the deaths of the 13 personnel killed in the last days of the Afghanistan evacuation and told him: “General, I think you should resign.”
It’s hard to miss the mechanics and narratives being set up for 2022.
“I have served this Nation for 42 years,” Milley wrote in his statement. “I’ve spent years in combat and 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. My loyalty is absolute.”