Top U.S. general in Afghanistan tells Senate: Biden's insistence on full withdrawal left us with no way to hold Bagram

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Was there a single top officer at the Pentagon who advised the president to withdraw all U.S. troops?

If not, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for Biden. He got elected pledging to end the endless war in Afghanistan to which the Pentagon remained stubbornly committed for 20 aimless years. “Commanding general opposes withdrawal” is the ultimate dog-bites-man story in U.S. politics. Biden might wear it as a badge of honor that he succeeded where Bush, Obama, and Trump had failed in sticking to his guns on extricating the U.S. from Afghanistan.

It could also be that Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller and other generals were more equivocal about withdrawal in their advice to the civilian leadership and are only now insisting that they were adamantly opposed in the aftermath of the fiasco in Kabul. No officer wants his fingerprints on that. But lying about your advice to the president in order to exculpate yourself would be dishonorable, not to mention a bad career move.

Fox correspondent Jacqui Heinrich reported yesterday that Miller’s recent testimony before a Senate committee raised the prospect that the evacuation debacle was not only foreseeable, it was foreseen. Miller allegedly told the committee that Biden’s insistence on a drawdown to near-zero troops made defending Bagram impossible. And he says he made it known that he thought the intelligence suggesting that the Afghan army might hold off the Taliban for awhile was wildly optimistic.

If the top guy in Afghanistan was telling the White House that they didn’t have much as time to evacuate as they hoped and and that there weren’t enough troops left to evacuate in the optimal way, what the hell was Biden thinking in pressing ahead?

“We heard enough to know that there are inconsistencies between what the administration has said and the truth,” said James Inhofe after Miller’s testimony. “Clearly, President Biden didn’t listen to all the military advice given.”

The president’s under no duty to follow the advice of his military leadership, of course. But when ignoring it leads to a national humiliation and thousands of U.S. permanent residents and Afghan allies stranded in Afghanistan, he should explain why he thought it wasn’t worth heeding.

Miller isn’t the only officer who opposed withdrawal. Back in April, when Biden announced that we’d be out by September 11 so that he could take a victory lap (in practice, a defeat lap) for having kept his campaign promise, Mark Milley and Lloyd Austin advised against it too. Milley, Scott Miller, and Gen. Frank McKenzie wanted a residual force of 3,000-4,500 American troops, a request Biden rejected on grounds that it would extend the Afghan army’s dependency on the U.S. — which, uh, was by design when the Afghan army was built — and wouldn’t be enough to defend Kabul from a Taliban attack. Presciently, Lloyd Austin reportedly reminded Biden of the Saigon withdrawal fiasco in 1975, telling him, “We’ve seen this movie before.”

So why didn’t Biden listen? The Times story at the last link reveals the truth, which the president himself will never, ever admit publicly: After 20 years of being spun by the military about phantom progress in Afghanistan, he simply didn’t trust them to be honest. They would have asked to keep a residual force in place forever to stave off the embarrassment of full withdrawal and a Taliban takeover. Biden knew that that “residual force” would eventually need to be bolstered with reinforcements to counter future Taliban offensives so he wouldn’t grant their request. After two decades of war, he was tired of being BS’d by the Pentagon.

In 2008, during visits to Afghanistan as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he “found confusion at all levels about our strategy and objectives,” Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, wrote in a memoir, “Duty.” Mr. Biden was so frustrated with the Afghan leadership, Mr. Gates added, that he once threw down his napkin and walked out of a dinner with President Hamid Karzai.

As vice president, Mr. Biden clashed with the Pentagon, including Mr. Gates, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about troop levels in the country, arguing for bringing them down to a minimal counterterrorism force. (He lost that battle.) And Mr. Biden was furious, Mr. Obama reported in his memoir, at generals who were trying to force a decision to commit additional troops with leaks saying that if more were not sent, the result would be mission failure.

Mr. Obama wrote that Mr. Biden used a vivid epithet and warned him about generals who “are trying to box in a new president.” The vice president leaned forward, putting his face “a few inches from mine and stage-whispered, ‘Don’t let them jam you,’” Mr. Obama recalled.

He didn’t want to be the fourth consecutive president to be “boxed in” to permanent occupation. That’s completely understandable, but it probably also meant that Biden ended up turning a deaf ear to more sound advice that 500 troops weren’t enough to process an orderly evacuation if/when things went sideways for the Afghan army in defending the capital from the Taliban. Biden didn’t trust his commanders, and those commanders had given him plenty of reason not to. Many thousands of innocents stuck in Afghanistan at the moment paid the price.