There was Mark Milley on the hot seat yesterday, getting grilled on the Hill over his military’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
At a time when the media have largely moved on from the war–while the Taliban just barred female students from Kabul University–the Senate hearing cast a much-needed spotlight on the calamitous end to our 20-year war. And unlike the usual partisan slugfests–Democrats also asked probing questions–it made plenty of news.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs and another top general, Kenneth McKenzie, acknowledged they had recommended that President Biden keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. McKenzie, the Centcom commander, said he predicted that the U.S. withdrawal would cause the collapse of the Afghan army and a Taliban takeover. The “input was received by the president,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified. (Milley wouldn’t discuss the advice he gave the president but made the situation clear.)
That seems to flatly contradict what Biden told ABC last month: “No one said that to me that I can recall.” That creates a serious credibility problem. If the military’s recommendation had been followed, the Taliban would not be in charge today.
Now Biden had every right to overrule his generals, who usually want more troops and more time to win wars that in the modern era have proved to be unwinnable. He campaigned on an Afghanistan pullout. He inherited a withdrawal deal from Donald Trump–and while he could have tossed that, Biden argues it would have required a troop increase since the Taliban were refraining from attacking Americans under the agreement.
But if Biden defied his military advisers in making the ill-fated move, he has to own that. And perhaps now he does.
Some Republicans pressed the witnesses on whether Biden had made a false statement, but they deflected the questions. These were “dramatic, obviously falsehoods,” said Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan.
Milley also said he’d recommended that Bagram airbase remain open before the evacuation, a blunder that seems obvious in retrospect.
There was another key subtext to the hearing, drawn right from “Peril,” the Bob Woodward-Robert Costa book: whether Milley had gone rogue and undermined Trump. (The general admitted he spoke with several authors.)
Milley was quickly asked about his back-channel calls to China’s top military man, assuring him there were no U.S. plans to attack–this at a time when the book says he was worried about Trump’s mental decline.
Milley said the calls were “coordinated…before and after” with then-Pentagon chief Mark Esper, his acting successor Chris Miller and their staffs. He said that based on intel reports it was his responsibility to “de-escalate” and say “we are not going to attack you.” He says he briefed both men and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows about the calls–a very different picture than presented in “Peril.”
“At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself in the chain of command,” he told the panel.
The book has Milley telling Nancy Pelosi, based on a call transcript, that he agrees with her assessment of Trump as crazy. He testified that he told the House speaker “I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.”
The aforementioned former president has been hammering Biden over Afghanistan, but is also being pummeled by such books as “Peril.” The latest, which leaked yesterday, is by former press secretary Stephanie Grisham, who writes about Trump’s “terrifying” temper. She says in “I’ll Take Your Questions Now,” which includes many unflattering anecdotes about Donald and Melania, that “casual dishonesty filtered through the White House as if it were in the air conditioning system.”
Grisham did not resign until after Jan. 6, and a Trump spokeswoman called the book “another pitiful attempt to cash in on the president’s strength and sell lies about the Trump family.”
There has been a series of blistering books about Trump from former aides he had previously praised, such as John Bolton, whose book his former boss tried to legally block. Another was by former “Apprentice” guest Omarosa Manigault Newman, who just won an arbitrator’s ruling that her book did not violate a confidentiality agreement.
What these and other authors are doing is trying to rehabilitate their images in a profitable enterprise by turning on the man who appointed them–even if they’re telling important truths. It’s a similar situation for officials and ex-officials, such as Milley and Bill Barr, who obviously cooperated extensively with the Woodward book.
For Milley, that meant defending himself at a Hill hearing carried live on the three cable news networks–and the first crack at accountability.