Let me remind you again of the president’s exchange with George Stephanopoulos on August 19, one that’s now been contradicted publicly by Frank McKenzie and Mark Milley.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But your top military advisors warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.
BIDEN: No, they didn’t. It was split. Tha– that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.
STEPHANOPOULOS: They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?
BIDEN: No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn’t argue against that.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So no one told — your military advisors did not tell you, “No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that”?
BIDEN: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.
The NYT reported last month that the Pentagon’s “big four” on Afghanistan were all of the opinion that leaving 3,000 to 4,500 troops in place was the prudent course of action. That would be Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; McKenzie, the head of Centcom; Gen. Scott Miller, the commanding officer in Afghanistan; and of course Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense.
Biden’s under no obligation to take their advice. They answer to him, not vice versa. But he made a provocative claim to Stephanopoulos when he said that the advice to him on withdrawal was “split” and so now we’re entitled to ask for details.
If it was “split,” who was on the pro-withdrawal side?
Was there some other top military advisor making the case for a pullout by September 11 or was that just a voice in Biden’s head? Or, more likely, was it a lie he told Stephanopoulos in lieu of admitting that he ignored the advice of his commanders and ordered what proved to be a calamitous bugout?
Psaki was asked about it today and conveniently refused to give details. Instead she retreated into the argument that 3,000 to 4,500 troops was an impossible number since it imagined a status quo that didn’t exist. If the U.S. had ignored the May 1 withdrawal deadline, the Taliban would have attacked and Biden would have needed to send reinforcements — a troop build-up. Again, though, if that’s his position, he’s entitled to hold it without falsely claiming that the advice to him was “split” in order to give his own preference a patina of military sanction.
Why can’t we have a straight answer to this question? Which advisor told Biden he was right to bug out? Watch, then read on.
Q: "Who in his military advisers told him it'd be fine to pull everybody out?"
.@PressSec: "I'm not going to get into specific details of who recommended what."
Full video here: https://t.co/FcZV0W1Rmw pic.twitter.com/dV28351bXQ
— CSPAN (@cspan) September 28, 2021
Biden’s obviously just passing the buck. Even if he got support for withdrawal from some lower-ranking officer, the fact that the big four were unified against it means it wasn’t “split” in any meaningful way.
But the military has passed the buck on certain points too. Until now, Biden’s taken the blame for the foolish decision to abandon Bagram air base in early July, months before the September 11 withdrawal deadline. Officers like Milley have claimed that the president left them with no choice: By ordering a drawdown, he rendered them unable to defend the base. But Politico reports today that the haste with which Bagram was abandoned was driven more by the military itself than by the president.
During the exercise [in early May], top Pentagon leaders including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley stressed the need for American troops to get out of the country as quickly as possible to protect against renewed Taliban attacks.
Their plan called for the military to draw down to zero within 60 days of Biden’s official order, or roughly mid- to late-June — far sooner than the Sept. 11 deadline the president originally set. One of the most crucial decisions involved handing over Bagram Air Base to the Afghans as the last step of the withdrawal once U.S. forces were so depleted that they could no longer reasonably secure what had been the hub of the American military effort there for the past 20 years.
“All of them made the same argument,” said one defense official, who was in attendance at the drill on May 8, and whose account includes previously unreported details. “Speed equals safety,” the person said, referring to the message conveyed by the military leaders…
“They just decided they lost the argument, and OK fine let’s get the heck out of dodge,” said one former senior defense official.
“Speed equals safety.” In the end, that was the opposite of what happened. The bugout from Bagram shook the confidence of the Afghan military, which may have contributed to the force’s collapse. It left Americans and Afghan friendlies in Afghanistan with less time to evacuate than they expected. And once the Taliban rolled into Kabul, the U.S. had to reinsert troops in order to secure Karzai Airport for the airlift that played out in late August.
Speed killed in this case. A slower withdrawal would have been safer. But the White House followed its commanders’ recommendations and approved the rapid pullout, to everyone’s detriment.
I’ll leave you with this new investigative report from the Times that undermines another core Biden argument for withdrawing, that we’ll be able to conduct counterterrorism in Afghanistan from “over the horizon.” The tragic drone strike that killed seven children and an innocent aid worker in the war’s final days has already revealed the folly in that thinking but the NYT’s investigation shows further how badly flawed it is. A key piece of intelligence in targeting the aid worker was the fact that he stopped at an ISIS-K safe house earlier in the day, before the strike. That cast suspicion on him, leading the military to believe that he was actually a bomber headed to the airport to kill American soldiers. So the Times went looking in Kabul to answer the question: Was that a terrorist safe house that he visited? You’ll never guess what the truth is. No wonder Biden didn’t listen to his generals too closely.
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