Here’s the latest installment of the Biden Afghanistan saga. Yesterday, Politico reported that “top generals told lawmakers under oath on Tuesday that they advised President Joe Biden early this year to keep several thousand troops in Afghanistan — directly contradicting the president’s comments in August that no one warned him not to withdraw troops from the country.” The article cites three generals — Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan until July, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley — who advised Biden directly or indirectly to keep a force of around 2,500 troops to stabilize the country during its transition.
The author of the piece, Laura Seligman, also refers readers back to Biden’s infamous Aug. 18 interview with ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, in which the president was asked three separate times whether he was advised to keep a minimal but significant troop presence in country. Each time Biden averred that he was not. Here is the third and most emphatic exchange, followed by a clip of the entire interview:
George 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”?
Joe Biden: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.
Despite the clarity of Biden’s response, he still has his defenders. One is Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who said during yesterday’s Key Capitol Hill Hearings with Gen. Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, among others that Biden never said that no one advised him to keep troops in Afghanistan. Watch:
People are saying that the president said, nobody offered, no one said that we should keep 2,500 there. And what the president actually said was there was no option on the table to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan in a stable environment. That’s what he said. Not that no one presented that option. That option didn’t exist in reality. And no one presented it. The president, in fact, made it clear earlier in the same interview that, yes, some of his military leaders had said that we should keep 2,500 troops there. What he said was, none of them said that we could do it in a stable, peaceful environment. And that is the key point. The other key point is — and I know a lot of energy will be expanded today trying to get these gentlemen to admit that they didn’t agree with the president’s decision. First of all I would never engage in that exercise as I believe the president, Democrat, Republican, no matter who it is, deserves the you know, unabridged advice of his commanders. I mean, you can’t do that if you then going to have to go out in public and talk about it.
But second of all, the president is the one in charge. This is ultimately what civilian control of the military means. And what I believe is I believe there were military commanders who said, no, we should stick it out, we should keep the 2,500 there. I think they were wrong. And so did the president. It’s not that they didn’t make the advice, it’s that they were wrong. This committee has an enormous amount of respect for our military leadership. That does not mean that the military leadership is incapable of being wrong. And over the last 20 years in Afghanistan, I would have thought we would have learned that lesson. President Biden had the courage to finally make the decision to say, no, we are not succeeding in this mission, placing more American lives at risk will not change that. If we could credibly say, you know, if we stuck it out for another year, another five, another ten and got to a better result, that’d be a difficult call. Was that worth the risk? But we can’t credibly say that. So we would have been putting American lives at risk for a mission that we had to know was not achievable. The president made the right call on that.
Technically, Smith’s stipulation is accurate, but only up to a point. That is whether conditions on the ground could be legitimately characterized as either stable or peaceful. And the reason for keeping several thousand troops, in the view of Gen. McKenzie, suggests they were not. During yesterday’s hearing, he was asked by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) about the risk of withdrawing all forces. McKenzie replied that doing so “would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and, eventually, the Afghan government.” Which is precisely what happened.