On Tuesday, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) grilled Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley about their interactions with President Biden vis-à-vis the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, ultimately demanding to know why Milley still holds office.
Cotton asked Milley, “It’s your testimony that you recommended 2,500 troops, approximately, stay in Afghanistan?”
Milley answered, “As I’ve said many times before this committee and other committees, I don’t share my personal recommendations with the president but I can tell you my personal opinion and assessment if that’s what you want.”
Cotton: “Yes, please.”
“Yes. My assessment was, back in the fall of (20)20, and it remained consistent throughout, that we should keep a steady state of 2,500 and it could bounce up to 3,500, maybe something like that, in order to move toward a negotiated gated solution,” Milley stated.
“Did you ever present that assessment personally to President Biden?” Cotton asked.
“I don’t discuss exactly what my conversations are with a sitting president in the Oval Office but I can tell you what my personal opinion was and I am always candid,” Milley replied.
Cotton asked General Kenneth McKenzie, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander, if he or General Austin Miller, the Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, agreed with Milley’s assessment. After McKenzie said he did, Cotton asked if he or General Miller had ever presented that assessment to President Biden. McKenzie said he could not comment on the discussions with Biden. Cotton then asked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Biden’s claim that no military leader had advised him to leave a small troop presence in Afghanistan.
Austin dodged, “I know the president to be an honest and forthright man.”
“It’s a simple question, Secretary Austin: He said no senior military leader advised him to leave a small troop presence behind,” Cotton persisted. “Is that true or not? Did these officers and General Miller’s recommendations get to the president personally?”
“Their input was received by the president, for sure. In terms of what they specifically recommended, Senator, as they just said, they’re not gonna provide what they recommended in confidence,” Austin answered.
“It sounds to me, this is shocking to me. It sounds to me like maybe their best military advice was never presented personally to the President of the United States about such a highly consequential matter,” Cotton charged. He then turned to Milley: “General Milley: Joe Biden has said that it was the unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs that we not maintain a military presence beyond August 31. We’ve heard testimony to that effect as well. When was that unanimous recommendation sought and presented to the president?”
Milley answered that the date was August 25.
Cotton said incredulously, “August 25? Kabul fell on August 15. You were not asked before August 25?”
“On August 25 I was asked to provide the best military assessment as whether we should keep military forces past the 31st,” Milley replied.
“Secretary Austin, was anybody asked before August 25 whether we should keep troops at the Kabul airport?” Cotton asked.
“The president tasked us to provide an assessment on whether or not we should extend our presence beyond August 31, and as General Milley just said, that assessment was made, we tasked him with making that assessment on August 25 and he came back and provided his best military advice,” Austin answered.
Cotton said to Austin, “Secretary, Kabul fell on August 15; it was clear that we had thousands of Americans – it was clear to this committee; we were getting phone calls. We had thousands of Americans in Afghanistan behind Taliban lines on August 15 and it took ten days to ask these general officers if we should extend our presence? I suspect the answer might be a little different if you were asking them 16 days out, not five days out.”
Cotton later blasted Milley, saying, “General Milley, I can only conclude that your advice about staying in Afghanistan was rejected. I’m shocked to learn that your advice wasn’t sought until August 25 on staying past the August 31 deadline. I understand that you’re the principal military adviser, that you advise but you don’t decide, the president decides, but if all this is true, General Milley, why haven’t you resigned?”
Milley answered, “Senator, as a senior military officer, resigning is a really serious thing. It’s a political act if I’m resigning in protest. My job is to provide advice. My statutory responsibility is to provide legal advice or best military advice to the president. And that’s what the law is. The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice; he doesn’t have to make those decisions just because we’re generals. And it would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice was 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 … I’m not going to resign. … There’s no way. If the orders were illegal, we’re in a different place. But if the orders are legal from a civilian authority, I intend to carry them out.”