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Afghanistan turmoil

Top U.S. general says Afghanistan withdrawal has damaged credibility

Milley says he advised Biden to keep forces in, contradicting president's statements

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill on Sept. 28.

NEW YORK -- Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, told Congress on Tuesday that the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan has harmed America's standing with its allies.

"I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world and with adversaries is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And I think that 'damage' is one word that could be used," he said.

Milley joined U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, in their first appearance before lawmakers since the late-August withdrawal.

The hearing ran for hours, and multiple senators called for their resignations.

Austin admitted that the Defense Department was taken by surprise at how rapidly the Afghan government fell to Taliban fighters.

"We need to consider some uncomfortable truths," Austin said.

"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 in the wake of the Doha agreement," he said.

"And finally, that we failed to grasp that there was only so much for which and for whom many of the Afghan forces would fight."

Milley and McKenzie acknowledged that they advised U.S. President Joe Biden not to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, contradicting an interview Biden gave last month in which he said no military leader advised him to leave a troop presence in the country.

When asked by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton why he had not resigned, Milley staunchly defended his role as that of adviser to the commander in chief, and the president does not have to agree with that advice.

"It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken. This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we're going to accept and do or not, that's not our job," he said.

Milley also defended details of his actions revealed in a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa of The Washington Post. The book states that the Joint Chiefs chairman was so troubled by former President Donald Trump's behavior in the final months of his administration that Milley summoned military commanders to go over the procedures of a nuclear attack order.

Milley acknowledged that the president alone could give the order but told the officers that he -- Milley -- also had to be involved.

"At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority or insert myself into the chain of command," Milley said.

Another major revelation in the book were phone calls Milley made to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, to assure Li that Trump would not attack China. The calls were conducted within the realm of designated protocols and oversights, Milley said.

"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.

The hearings were some of the most significant and heated testimonies of military officials before Congress in recent years.

As the Biden administration continues to try to mitigate the fallout from its tumultuous pullout from Afghanistan, U.S. senators were mostly split along party lines in using the hearing as a means of criticizing or defending the administration.

Those seeking to defend the Biden administration's decision sought to frame the pullout within the context of a war that lasted two decades, while those more critical of the administration focused on the final few months.

"While there is a temptation to close the book on Afghanistan and simply move on to long-term strategic competition with China and Russia. We must capture the lessons of the last two decades," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat and chair of the committee, in his opening remarks.

"President Biden and his advisers didn't listen to this combat commander. He didn't listen to Congress, and he failed to anticipate what all of us knew would happen. So in August, we all witnessed the horror of the president's own making," said Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, ranking member of the committee.

The hearing will not be the final debate on Afghanistan as the U.S. and international community seek to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in the country as the Taliban take over.

When asked if the war in Afghanistan was over, the generals had a simple answer.

"The war on terror is not over, and the war in Afghanistan is not over," McKenzie said.

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