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US Lawmakers Argue Over War Top General Says Was 'Unwinnable'

By Jeff Seldin September 29, 2021

Anger over the end of the United States' two decades of fighting in Afghanistan turned into arguments during a second day of hearings by U.S. lawmakers Wednesday, with some demanding top officials resign while others praised them for making the best of a difficult situation.

The most vocal criticism came from Republicans, many of whom repeatedly chastised U.S. President Joe Biden for ending U.S. combat operations against the advice of senior military officials and pulling the last U.S. forces from Afghanistan last month.

"Regardless of how you feel about the decision to remove troops from Afghanistan, I think we can all agree that the withdrawal was an unmitigated disaster," Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, the leading Republican on the House Armed Services Committee said Wednesday.

"It was an extraordinary disaster...one of the greatest failures of American leadership," he added, saying, "I fear the president is delusional."

Florida Republican Matt Gaetz went further, demanding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley, and General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, all step down immediately.

"I believe you guys probably won't resign," Gaetz said. "But if we didn't have a president who was so addled, you all would be fired because that is what you deserve."

The partisan attacks grew heated enough that the committee's Democratic chairman, Representative Adam Smith, repeatedly interjected, countering what he described as arguments that were "fundamentally disingenuous."

"Any implication that the gentlemen in front of us are not very capable, very intelligent and very committed to this country is simply partisan political opportunism," Smith said, at times having to talk over other lawmakers.

"Pick your favorite general. Pick your favorite president. Pick your favorite leader," Smith said. "None of them could successfully do what so many members of this committee are sitting here telling these gentlemen that they're basically idiots for not being able to do."

During the approximately four hours of testimony, both CENTCOM's General McKenzie and the Joint Staff's General Milley confirmed they had advocated, consistently, for keeping about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, though such a plan would not have been without risk.

"Had we held the 2,500, which I stated was my position, and as the secretary [of defense] has articulated, there would have been a clear risk that the Taliban would have begun to attack us," McKenzie told lawmakers.

"However, it was my judgment then that would still have given us a platform to continue negotiations with the Taliban to perhaps force a political solution," McKenzie said.

Milley told the panel that keeping 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan could also have helped bolster the Afghan government and the morale of the Afghan security forces, perhaps staving off their rapid collapse in mid-August.

But Milley also told lawmakers that U.S. military might would only have gone so far, saying he had concluded about five years ago that the war in Afghanistan, "was unwinnable through U.S. military means."

"Success would have been a negotiated solution between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban for a power sharing agreement," he said. "I also assessed that the probability of that actually happening was low."

A day earlier, testifying during a six-hour-long hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Milley labeled the 20-year-long U.S. effort in Afghanistan a failure, despite evacuation efforts that saw the U.S. military airlift about 124,000 people, including some 6,000 Americans, out of Kabul in just 17 days.

"The enemy is in charge in Kabul; there's no way else to describe that," Milley told Senators on Tuesday, though he said when it came to leaving Afghanistan, "I think the end state probably would have been the same no matter when you did it."

House lawmakers on Wednesday criticized the evacuation effort, saying Americans and many Afghans who helped the U.S. had been left behind.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin promised them the Pentagon would keep working to get as many people out as possible, even though there are no longer any U.S. troops on the ground.

"In the last 48 hours I think we've brought out an additional 63 American citizens and 169 legal permanent residents," Austin told committee members Wednesday.

He also said U.S. military would remain laser-focused on tracking any potential terror threats that could emerge from Afghanistan — whether from the al-Qaida or Islamic State terror groups — something officials have said could happen any time in the next three years.

For now, defense officials and the White House insist they have the ability to eliminate any potential terror threats with drone strikes from "over-the-horizon," though military officials admit it will be more difficult now without having troops on the ground.

Asked if it was possible the U.S. might once again have to send troops to Afghanistan at some point in the future, Austin said he "won't rule anything out."

"I will just say it's not preordained that we will go back or have to go back," he said.

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