Top generals say they advised leaving 2,500 troops in Afghanistan


Top military officials told lawmakers on Tuesday that they had recommended 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, contradicting comments made by President Biden earlier this year. 

Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each acknowledged during public congressional testimony that they agreed with the recommendation of Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller that 2,500 troops be left in the country, though they denied to detail what they advised Biden directly.

“I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion, and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation. 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,” McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday under questioning from Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the panel’s top Republican.

McKenzie said it had been his view that the full U.S. withdrawal would lead to the collapse of Afghan forces and government.

Milley said he agreed with that assessment, saying it was his personal view dating back to last fall that the U.S. should maintain at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to move toward a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government. Milley declined to comment directly on his specific discussions with Biden when questioned by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

Asked whether Miller discussed his recommendation with Biden, McKenzie told lawmakers he believed his opinion “was well heard.”

Republican lawmakers repeatedly raised the matter in the context of an interview Biden gave to ABC News in August during which he denied that his top military commanders recommended he leave 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

“Your military advisors did not tell you, ‘No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that’?” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden in the interview.

“No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden replied.

Asked about the exchange on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Llyod Austin called Biden an “honest and forthright man.”

“Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure,” Austin told Cotton when asked if Biden’s statement to ABC was true. “In terms of what they specifically recommended, senator, as they just said, they’re not going to provide what they recommended in confidence.”

Later during the hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) grilled the witnesses on whether Biden made a false statement in the interview.

“That was a false statement, by the president of the United States, was it not?” Sullivan asked.

“I didn’t even see the statement, to tell you the truth,” Milley replied, adding, “I’m not going to characterize a statement of the president of the United States.”

In April, Biden ordered the full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11. U.S. forces completed the withdrawal by Aug. 31, capping a chaotic exit and evacuation mission from the war-torn country after the Taliban gained control of Kabul earlier the same month.

Miller appeared before lawmakers for classified testimony earlier this month. Tuesday's hearing was the first time that top military officials have testified publicly since the August withdrawal.

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