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This is the fourth part of a Fox News Digital Originals series about the fall of Kabul and the hectic and heroic 96-hour effort to evacuate Afghans fearing retribution from the Taliban. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
President Biden’s top military advisers should have predicted Afghanistan’s imminent collapse – and then offered their resignations if the commander in chief refused to modify his withdrawal plans, a former deputy commander told Fox News.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Central Command head Gen. Kenneth McKenzie had a responsibility to stand firm if they believed the fast-paced troop withdrawal would end in catastrophe, retired Marine Col. Andrew Milburn told Fox News.
“Can you imagine if those three or even two out of three had offered their resignation?” Milburn, a former Special Operations Central deputy commander, said. “You don’t think that might have caused the president to think twice?”
He argued that all three are products of a culture the military has fostered that favors leaders who are obedient, rather than principled freethinkers.
“I think they’re products of a culture that has arisen within the U.S. military that simply does not encourage innovative thinking or creative thinking,” Milburn, who spent 31 years in the military, told Fox News. “That rewards perhaps obedience above all else.”
“I think within our organizations, the Joint Force, we sadly have a culture that does not always see the most strong-willed creative thinkers rise to the top,” he continued. “It’s a culture that I think is amiss.”
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 28: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (C) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (L) and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie (R) testify during a hearing before Senate Armed Services Committee at Dirksen Senate Office Building September 28, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing “to receive testimony on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
‘The ultimate sanction’
To date, no one has been held accountable for failing to predict the Taliban’s swift seizure of Kabul while U.S. citizens still inhabited the city. Milburn said the Afghan government’s collapse should have been obvious.
“How are these three holding themselves responsible? I’ve seen all three of them during the 90-day period use that term,” Milburn said of Austin, Milley and McKenzie.
“It’s very difficult to explain exactly what that means if you continue in office,” he added. “Holding yourself responsible often is a prelude to resignation. Not always, but … that’s really the ultimate sanction. So, it is hard to take them seriously.”
Milburn said the trio has “rendered their own words hollow.”
He pointed to a Sept. 28 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Milley testified that he wouldn’t resign because the service members in Kabul couldn’t refuse their orders. The general said it would be unfair to abandon his duties while enlisted men couldn’t.
Milburn told Fox News that Milley’s testimony “showed that he didn’t have a good understanding of his professional ethics” and called his reasoning “illogical.”
While explaining why he didn’t resign, Milley also testified that the nation “does not want generals figuring out what orders we are going to accept.” He emphasized the importance of civilian control of the military.
WATCH “SNAFU – The Last 96, Part 4”:
But Milburn said the American public’s wishes aren’t “really the only arbiter of making that moral decision because … his oath was to the Constitution.”
“It’s not necessarily, what the American public would like,” Milburn continued. “It is what does he feel his duty to the Constitution is. Not to any particular person.”
Milley also testified that he only serves as an adviser to the president and that the commander in chief can choose to ignore his counsel.
While Milburn agreed, he also said that if Austin and McKenzie gave the same advice, that a particular order could cause a catastrophe as bad as the Afghanistan withdrawal, “wouldn’t you make a firmer stand?”
“That is the time to stand your ground and simply say, ‘no boss. I’ll give you my resignation,'” Milburn told Fox News. “That should be our collective expectation of these people.”
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 29: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Ending the U.S. Military Mission in Afghanistan in the Rayburn House Office Building at the U.S. Capitol on September 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty Images) (Photo by Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty Images)
Such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented. James Mattis, former President Trump’s first defense secretary, vacated his post after repeated disagreements with the commander in chief.
“You have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours,” he wrote in his resignation letter.
Milburn also argued that Biden’s military leaders should have planned for the Taliban’s immediate takeover, even if it was considered unlikely.
“No one really without any sense of foresight could say [Biden] will yank [the troops] out and the Afghan government will not collapse,” he told Fox News.
“Certainly as military planners, you always have some contingency plan, no matter how unlikely you think an event is to occur,” Milburn added. “If the events are going to be catastrophic, you plan for that.”
“Ignoring the ramifications of any decision that you make or order that you pass, I suppose would come within that category of SNAFU,” he said.
Ultimately, uniformed leaders need to know when to stand against superiors to best serve the nation, Milburn argued.
“As a military professional, our duty isn’t simply to follow orders,” he told Fox News. “There is a point where if we see something that is happening catastrophic to the institution, then doesn’t our oath to the Constitution obligate us to take action?
Yet McKenzie didn’t act on a top Taliban leader’s suggestion the U.S. take responsibility for security over all of Kabul during the evacuation, the four-star general testified during a Sept. 29 House Armed Services Committee hearing. He said he was unsure if that offer was presented to Biden.
“That was not why I was there, that was not my instruction,” McKenzie told the panel. “I did not consider that to be a formal offer and it was not the reason why I was there, so I did not pursue it,” McKenzie told the panel.
The Taliban ultimately took point on securing the Kabul airport. An ISIS-K suicide bomber bypassed the Taliban’s checkpoints and killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.
Austin’s ‘chronic decision-phobia’
Milburn said poor leadership is standard and that bad decisions from the top – even minor ones – amplify down the ladder.
He repeated a joke Marines often told: “What is the difference between the Marine Corps and the Boy Scouts of America? The Boy Scouts have adult leadership.”
It was the kind of joke used “to mitigate your sense of powerlessness” from “the bottom of the pyramid,” Milburn told Fox News. In the military, “the results of ineffective leadership or inefficiency or just minor mistakes are felt greatly at kind of the tail end of the whip.”
Austin, for his part, built a reputation for “chronic decision-phobia” – fearing decision-making – when he headed Central Command, Milburn wrote in a Task and Purpose op-ed where he called on the secretary to resign.
FILE – In this June 17, 2021 file photo, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley talk before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP) (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)
Failure to make decisions “causes a great deal of frustration beneath you,” Milburn told Fox News. “A lot of us would rather have a tyrannical commander than one who simply avoided decisions because at the tail end of the whip, that causes all kinds of confusion.”
In the military, “the most important thing you have is your reputation,” the retired colonel told Fox News. “It’s not even rank, it’s not necessarily authority at any given time. It’s the ability for you to inspire people, especially those beneath you.”
Milburn flagged a program that failed horribly under Austin when he served as the top commander in the Middle East.
The Defense Department launched a $500 million program in December 2014 to train 5,400 Syrian fighters a year to help the U.S. combat ISIS. The following September, Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee that only “four or five” trainees were fighting In Syria.
The program was shuttered weeks later.
“It just seemed incomprehensible to me that there were no ramifications for him aside from, I assume, just being embarrassed,” he told Fox News. “Can you imagine anyone not getting fired for that kind of mismanagement? But somehow he survived.”
Milburn said it probably caused “irreparable damage” to Central Command and to the military.
“What we saw during the closing days of the fall of Kabul, who can deny that those images were disastrous to just our credibility as a nation?” Milburn added.
The Pentagon declined to comment.
Matt Leach contributed to this report.