Milley and Austin Testimony Live Updates: Losing Bagram Base 'Inevitable' Without Troops on Ground in Afghanistan

Live Updates

General Mark Milley, the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S., was grilled by Republicans on Tuesday in his first Congressional appearance since revelations about his controversial dialogue with China.

Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee along with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command.

In his opening statements, Milley clarified his phone call with his Chinese counterpart. He said he had to de-escalate concerns that the U.S. would attack China.

"I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese," Milley said. "It is my directed responsibility – to convey presidential orders and intent."

On the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Milley said the evacuation operation was "a logistical success, but a strategic failure."

Both Generals Milley and McKenzie explained that there is still a terror threat in Afghanistan, as the Taliban still has ties to al-Qaeda and ISIS-K "aspires" to attack the U.S.

Austin could not stay exactly how many Americans remained in Afghanistan but said the number was less than 100.

He added that if U.S. forces stayed beyond the August 31 deadline, troops would be fighting the Taliban right now.

"I know there's American citizens [left in Afghanistan], but they would have been a greater risk had we stayed past the 31st," General Milley said.

All three witnesses blamed the swift collapse of Afghan forces on several factors, including low morale, the poor government leadership and the Doha agreement President Trump made with the Taliban.

Generals Milley and McKenzie also contradicted previous statements made by President Joe Biden. The generals said they personally believed the U.S. should have kept 2,500 troops on the ground in Afghanistan but did not disclose how they advised the president. Biden said during an interview with ABC that no senior military advisor told him to leave a troop presence.

Despite several direct calls to resign, General Milley said he has no plans to step down.

"It would be an act of political defiance for a commissioned officer just to resign if my advice is not taken," he said.

The live updates for this hearing have ended.

Sen. Hawley calls on Milley, Austin to resign

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) blasted General Milley for speaking to the press while the situation in Afghanistan was "deteriorating."

"It seems to me that you put a high priority on making sure that you are favorably portrayed by the DC press corps, you spent a lot of time doing that," Hawley said.

Hawley asked Milley if he was too distracted with media interviews to pay attention to Afghanistan.

Milley said he spoke with journalists and authors for their books about the Trump administration earlier this year. Hawley and other senators raised concerns that Milley was "transparent" with the media but would not provide answers at today's hearing.

Hawley then told both Milley and Secretary Austin that they should resign.

"I think this mission was a catastrophe. I think there's no other way to say it. There has to be accountability," he said.

Gen. McKenzie says it was not "feasible" to keep Bagram with less than 2500 U.S. troops

General McKenzie said the decision to leave Bagram Air Base was linked to the number of U.S. troops on the ground.

"Once we went below 2,500 people in Afghanistan, we lost the ability to hold Bagram Air Base and it was inevitable that we were going to have to come out of Bagram," he said.

McKenzie added that staying at Bagram would not have helped evacuation efforts.

"In no way would holding onto Bargam have contributed to helping the Afghan Air Force or helping bring people out of Afghanistan," he said.

Jen Psaki clarifies Biden's advise on keeping troops on the ground in Afghanistan

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said "the advice was split" among military advisors on whether to keep U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

President Biden previously told ABC that no senior military leadership advised him to leave a troop presence in Afghanistan.

During the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Generals Milley and McKenzie seemed to contradict that claim. They said they personally believed the U.S. should have kept 2500 troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but would not share what they advised Biden to do.

In a tweet, Psaki said the consensus of top military advisors was that keeping troops would cause an "escalation."

As @POTUS told ABC, ending the war in Afghanistan was in our national interest. He said advice was split, but consensus of top military advisors was 2500 troops staying meant escalation due to deal by the previous admin. @SecDef, the Chairman, and GEN McKenzie all reiterated.

— Jen Psaki (@PressSec) September 28, 2021

ISIS "aspires" to attack the U.S., Gen. McKenzie says

General McKenzie said he believes ISIS is planning to attack the United States.

He said ISIS has been "newly rejuvenated" with the addition of prisoners released from Parwan and Pul-e-Charkhi prisons.

"We know for certainty that they do aspire to attacks us on our homeland," he said. "And we know the same for al-Qaeda."

Austin says Sept. 11 deadline was not a military recommendation

Senator Tom Cotton asks Defense Secretary Austin who decided that the U.S. leave Afghanistan by September 11.

While this was President Biden's original withdrawal date, Austin said it "was not a military recommendation."

Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban will become more complicated, generals say

Generals McKenzie and Milley both said Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban will "become significantly more complicated" as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

McKenzie said there are ongoing talks with Pakistan over the use of the air corridor to access Afghanistan and over-flight permission.

He added that he will discuss details, including Pakistan's nuclear weapons, in a closed session with Congress.

Fewer than 100 Americans remain in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Austin said the U.S. evacuated 21 American citizens and their families out of Afghanistan today.

While he could not give an exact number, Austin said there are "fewer than 100" remaining in Afghanistan.

Gen. Milley says he spoke with Bob Woodward but hasn't read his book

General Milley said he spoke with Bob Woodward, Phil Rucker, Carol Leonnig and Michael Bender for recent their books, "Peril," "I Alone Can Fix It" and "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost."

These books include reporting about Milley's actions during the Trump administration.

When asked whether he was "accurately represented" in the books, Milley said he has not read any of the books.

Mark Milley couldn’t tell me whether the reports on him from authors he willingly spoke to were true or not. Clearly, he didn’t do his homework before today’s hearing!

— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) September 28, 2021

Al-Qaeda remains a threat to the United States, generals say

General Milley said al-Qaeda is still a threat to the United States.

"A reconstituted al-Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the U.S. is a very real possibility, and those conditions to include activity in ungoverned spaces could present themselves in the next 12-36 months," Milley said.

He added that he believes "al-Qaeda is at war with us."

Gen. McKenzie is not confident U.S. can prevent terror attack from Afghanistan

General McKenzie said "nobody was under pressure" to carry out the airstrike on August 29.

He took full responsibility for the attack and said that his team acted on "intelligence we saw on the ground," just as they did during other successful strikes they carried out before.

"This time we were tragically wrong," he said.

McKenzie also noted that it will now be "harder to see things on the ground in Afghanistan.

When asked if he is confident that the U.S. can stop al-Qaida or ISIS-K from launching terror attacks from Afghanistan, McKenzie said "that is yet to be seen."

Sen. Duckworth plans to hold a commission to evaluate lessons from the Afghanistan war

Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said she will introduce a bill this week to create a bipartisan and independent commission to look into the Afghanistan War.

She said it will be a "long-term study" to serve as a "lessons-learned review" of U.S. efforts under four presidents in Afghanistan.

Generals blame Doha agreement for low morale of Afghan forces

Both Generals Milley and McKenzie said the Trump administration's Doha agreement negatively impacted the morale of the Afghan forces.

Earlier in the hearing, General McKenzie also said the sudden flee of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani "really demoralized" the Afghan Security Forces and allowed for the Taliban's "pushing in as fast as they wanted to" into Kabul.

"When your president flees literally on no notice in the middle of the day, it has a profoundly debilitating effect on everything else," McKenzie said.

Gen. Milley says he was not trying to "insert himself in the chain of command" during China call

During his opening statement, General Milley clarified the nature of his call with China.

He said that by law, he is not in the chain of command, but he is in the chain of communication.

"At no time was I attempting to insert myself in the chain of command, but I am required to give my advice and make sure the president is informed of military matters," he said.

READ MORE: "Milley Defends Calls to Chinese Government, 'Certain' Trump Did Not Intend to Attack"

Taliban did not let ISIS-K bomber through checkpoint, McKenzie says

General McKenzie said that intelligence suggests the Taliban forces working checkpoints to the Kabul airport did not let the ISIS-K bomber through on August 26.

He added that he believes the Taliban prevented other attacks from getting past checkpoints during the evacuation effort.

McKenzie also noted that the U.S. stopped a number of other planned attacks on troops during the withdrawal efforts in Afghansitan.

"There were a lot of threats, and we worked very hard to minimize those threats," he said. He added that "every once in a while the bad guys sneak one in on you. This is an example of where that occurred."

Gen. Milley says the credibility of the U.S. is "damaged"

Senator Rodger Wicker (R-MS) asked General Milley if the credibility of the United States has been damaged in the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

"I think our credibility with allies and partners around the world, and with adversaries, is being intensely reviewed by them," Milley said. "And I think that 'damage' is one word that could be used, yes."

However, Defense Secretary Austin said the country's "credibility remains solid" with allies.

Americans would have been at greater risk in Afghanistan on Sept. 1, Gen. Milley says

General Milley said the military should avoid putting row dates on strategic decisions.

After two presidents who gave specific dates for the Afghanistan withdrawal, Milley said the U.S. should not put date-certains or end dates on such decisions. Rather, presidents should "make things conditions-based."

Milley said that the U.S. needed to pull out of Kaul by the deadline that was agreed upon with the Taliban. He said the risk of the mission "was going to go up, not down, on the first of September."

He said there was "no doubt" the U.S. would go to war with the Taliban on September 1, resulting in "significant casualties."

"I know there's American citizens [left in Afghanistan], but they would have been a greater risk had we stayed past the 31st."

Gen. Milley says he will not resign

During Tuesday's hearing, General Milley said he will not resign.

"Resigning is a really serious thing. It's a political act, if I'm resigning in protest."

He said his job is to provide his best military advice to the president.

"The president doesn't have to agree with that," he said. "It would be an act of political defiance for a commissioned officer just to resign if my advice is not taken."

General say they believed troops should have remained on the ground in Afghanistan

General Milley said his personal assessment back in the fall of 2020 and it "remains consistent throughout" that the U.S. should have kept 2500 troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

However, Milley said he won't discuss the official recommendation he shared with President Joe Biden.

General McKenzie said he feels the same way but also would not say if he expressed that to Biden.

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) said Biden told ABC last month that no senior military leadership advised him to leave a troop presence in Afghanistan.

Secretary Austin said the advice from the generals was received by the president.

Earlier in the hearing, Milley said that with "100 percent certainty," the military voice was heard and considered by Biden.

"I'm confident the president heard all the recommendations and listened to them very thoughtfully," General McKenzie said.

Gen. Milley blames poor morale for collapse of Afghan forces

General Milley credits the fall of Afghan forces to low morale of troops ahead of the Taliban's takeover.

He said the U.S. had no way to assess the leadership, will and morale of Afghan forces which is why "we absolutely missed the rapid collapse of the Afghan military."

He said that while some units did fight at the very end, "the vast majority of Afghan forces put weapons down and melted away."

Milley noted that the U.S. missed this intel because we pulled advisors out of the units three years ago.

He said the U.S. can assess the strength of equipment forces have with satellites, "but you can't measure human heart with a machine. You have to be there."

Secretary Austin could not say how many Americans remain in Afghanistan

When asked how many U.S. citizens remain in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Austin deferred to the State Department.

Senator Inhofe suggested there could be as many as 4,000.

"I personally do not believe there are 4,000, but I cannot confirm or deny," Austin said.

Milley says he had to quell fears of a U.S. attack on call with China

General Milley also took time during his statement to address his call with China.

"My loyalty to this nation, the Constitution and its people has never changed," he said.

Milley said that he routinely communicated with his Chinese counterpart with government oversight.

He said that calls were spurred by "concerning intelligence" that the Chinese were worried about an attack by the U.S.

"I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese," Milley said. "It is my directed responsibility – to convey presidential orders and intent."

He added that his task at the time was to de-escalate the situation.

"My message again was consistent: calm, steady, deescalate. We are not going to attack you," he said.

General Milley says Taliban remains a "terrorist organization"

In his opening statements, General Mark Milley said the war in Afghanistan did not end how the U.S. wanted.

"It is clear, it is obvious the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms that we had wanted," he said, noting that the Taliban is now in power in Kabul.

He said that the Taliban "was and remains a terrorist organization," as they have "not broken ties with Al-Qaeda."

"I have no illusions who we are dealing with," he said.

Austin says staying at Bagram airbase would mean "staying at war"

Defense Secretary Austin said keeping Bagram Air Base would mean "staying at war in Afghanistan."

"Staying at Bagram – even for counter-terrorism purposes – meant staying at war in Afghanistan, something that the President made clear he would not do," he said.

Defense Secretary Austin admits Afghanistan withdrawal was not perfect

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admits the Afghanistan withdrawal was not perfect.

"It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history and it was executed in 17 days," he said in his opening statement. "Was it perfect? Of course not."

He also said the U.S. was "surprised" by how quickly and easily the Afghan forces collapsed

"The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away, in many cases without firing a shot, took us all by surprise, and it would be dishonest to claim otherwise," he said.

Sen. Inhofe says the "horror" of the Afghanistan withdrawal was "foreseen"

Senator James Inhofe described the withdrawal as "a horror of the President's own making."

"This was avoidable. Everything that happened was foreseen," he said. "We saw it coming. We are here to understand why that advice was ignored."

Senators express frustration that witnesses sent in opening statements last minute

Senator Reed and Ranking Members James Inhofe (R-OK) expressed their frustration that the witnesses did not send in their opening statements to the Committee until late last night.

It is customary for witnesses to submit statements 48 hours before a hearing, Reed said.

Inhofe said members of the Committee didn't have the opportunity to be well-informed.

Sen. Reed aims to "capture the lessons" of the last two decades in Afghanistan during hearing

In his opening statements, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-RI) stated the purpose of this hearing is to understand the Taliban's rapid takeover and collapse of Afghanistan forces over the past two months.

However, he acknowledged that the committee must also look at the broader experience in Afghanistan in order to "capture lessons of last two decades."

The Senators: 4 - Tommy Tuberville

Tommy Tuberville of Alabama has made his feelings clear about Afghanistan. On the Senate floor, just after the withdrawal, he said:

"Those who work in national security know in their hearts that the president is wrong when he says the 'war is over.' Mr. President, the war is not over. The war is over when your enemy accepts defeat. Our enemy, the Taliban, are not defeated. They are emboldened.

"President Biden has handed them the greatest victory in their pitiful, pitiful history. A victory greater than they could have ever dreamed. Using this victory as propaganda against the United States will be recruiting gold for the Taliban. Make no mistake, now that they've sent America running for the exits in Afghanistan, they intend to bring the terror we saw at Kabul's airport home to us right here in the United States of America."

He listed the military equipment left behind, and vowed to get answers from U.S. military leaders about the abandonment of Bagram Airbase.

Tuberville continued: "Never in American history have we seen a commander-in-chief leave Americans behind enemy lines. It is unheard of. Unheard of in the history of this country...That is why our military fights – we do not leave people behind. But they were ordered to leave by our commander-in-chief.

"To those soldiers, sailors, Marines, airman, and guardsmen who served in Afghanistan, I promise you this: we will get answers from this Administration."

The Senators: 3 - Marsha Blackburn

Marsha Blackburn is the Republican senator from Tennessee, and she has made no secret of her feelings about the Biden administration and Afghanistan.

The top of her Twitter feed has a pinned tweet which simply says: "Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin and General Milley should all resign or face impeachment and removal from office."

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin and General Milley should all resign or face impeachment and removal from office.

— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) August 26, 2021

She has also asked her Twitter followers to tell her what to ask Milley and Austin in Congress.

Above a 24-second video clip, she wrote: "General Milley and Secretary Austin should resign, but since they won't, I'll be grilling them tomorrow". In the video, she asked people to volunteer questions she should ask Milley and Austin about "how things in Afghanistan got so off track - it didn't have to be that way."

General Milley and Secretary Austin should resign, but since they won't, I'll be grilling them tomorrow @SASCGOP. Comment your top questions below. pic.twitter.com/XD3JHD13NT

— Sen. Marsha Blackburn (@MarshaBlackburn) September 28, 2021

There are over 1,200 replies at time of writing. Almost all are critical of Blackburn.

The Senators: 2 - Tom Cotton

One of the Senate committee members, Tom Cotton (R-AR) has been far more measured than some of his Republican peers about Milley. In an interview with Fox on Sept 15, Cotton described the Milley phone calls to China as sounding "far-fetched" and said he would rather ask Milley about it in a hearing than push for his resignation: "We'll address these concerns... we don't want to jump to conclusions".

Cotton was more worried about whether President Biden "disregarded the military advice he received over what would happen... with the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan".

Although Cotton is no stranger to controversy — his opinion piece in the New York Times in June 2020, Send in the Troops, caused outrage and a resignation from the paper — he certainly seems less worked up about getting Milley fired, and keener to pin down the failings of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

The Senators: 1 - Josh Hawley

There are 13 Republican senators on the committee that will question Milley and Austin today. Of those, Josh Hawley of Missouri is one of the best-known.

A Trump loyalist, Hawley has faced criticism for his fist-salute at the January 6th Capitol riots. What has Hawley said about Milley before today's hearing?

In a September 15 segment on Fox News with Laura Ingraham, Hawley didn't pull his punches over the revelations about Milley's phone calls to China.

Hawley said:

"What he has done... is go outside the chain of command, he has threatened the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military.

"He doesn't have the right, he doesn't have the authority, to contact our opponents in Beijing and tell them that he will inform them about any action we might take before we take it... I hope these reports are inaccurate, but he does need to resign, and if he won't resign, he needs to be fired."

Sen. Josh Hawley: Milley needs to be fired if he won't resign. pic.twitter.com/23EQSpZFgo

— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) September 15, 2021

Who Appointed Milley?

Hint: it wasn't President Biden.

Donald Trump appointed Milley back in December 2018, calling Milley "incredible" on Twitter, and his appointment was approved by the Senate by a vote of 89-1. Of course, Trump has since called Milley a "nutjob", a "dumbass" and suggested that Milley should be tried for treason.

When Milley was appointed, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), at the time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made the following statement after the vote:

"General Milley has dedicated his life to service to our nation, and now, he will continue that service as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I commend the President for his selection of General Milley, and thank the Senate for confirming him today."

Now as Ranking Member of the Committee, Inhofe will be instrumental in holding Milley to account. Earlier this month, according to Military Times, Inhofe said when asked if the book Peril (which details Milley's phone calls to China) would raised at the hearing: "I can't think of anything we won't be talking about when he comes before the committee."

What's on the Agenda?

There's hardly a shortage of topics to discuss in today's Senate hearing.

Newsweek has set out the agenda. The main topic is Afghanistan, and in particular:

  • the speed of the Taliban's advance on Kabul and takeover
  • how the withdrawal played out
  • the death of 10 people (including 7 children) in a botched drone strike
  • the decision to abandon Bagram Airbase

While the hearing's title is about Afghanistan and counterterrorism, General Milley's phone calls to China will almost certainly come up. Some Republicans called his actions treasonous, and demanded he resign.

Republicans have also expressed concern about potential U.S. military cooperation with Russia on counterterrorism measures.

Read the full story here.