WASHINGTON: The top American general has dubbed the 20-year war in Afghanistan a "strategic failure" as the Pentagon leadership told lawmakers that they had recommended having 2,500 troops in Afghanistan to prevent a collapse of the West-supported government in Kabul, but President Joe Biden disagreed.
The White House, however, defended the presidential decision, acknowledging that it was a split recommendation from Biden's advisors and generals.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of US Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley and Gen Frank McKenzie, Commander of US Central Command, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the Pentagon had recommended Biden about the need to keep 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan post withdrawal.
"I won't share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion, and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation.
I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time.
Those are my personal views," McKenzie told the senators.
Milley told the lawmakers that he also agreed with the recommendations that the US maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
"Outcomes in a war like this, an outcome that is a strategic failure - the enemy is in charge in Kabul, there's no way else to describe that - that is a cumulative effect of 20 years," he said, adding that lessons need to be learned.
The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in mid-August, ousting the previous elected government which was backed by the West.
"Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure". In terms of what they specifically recommended, as they just said, they are not going to provide what they recommended in confidence," Austin told the lawmakers as the furious senators grilled the top Pentagon leadership on the nature of withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
"I always keep my advice to the president confidential, but I am very much satisfied that we had a thorough policy review and I believe that all of the parties had an opportunity to provide input and that input was received," he said.
Defending the presidential decision, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that there was a range of viewpoints, as was evidenced by their testimony, that were presented to the president and his national security team as would be expected.
"The president asked for a clear-eyed, did not ask them not to sugarcoat it, what their recommendations were," Psaki told reporters.
"It was also clear that would not be a long-standing recommendation, that there would need to be an escalation, an increase in troop numbers. It would also mean war with the Taliban. And it would also mean the potential loss of casualties. The president was just not willing to make that decision," she said.
"He did not think it was in the interest of the American people or the interest of our troops," she asserted.
Responding to another question, Psaki said there were recommendations made by a range of Biden's advisers, something he welcomed, something he asked them to come to him clear-eyed about, to give him candid advice.
"Ultimately, it is up to the commander in chief to make a decision. He made a decision that it was time to end a 20-year war," Psaki said.
The official further explained that it is a risk assessment for every president about what is in the interest of the United States of America, its military and national interests.
"And if we had kept 2,500 troops there, we would have increased the number of troops, we would have been at war with the Taliban, and we would have had more US casualties," she said.
"That was a reality everybody was clear-eyed about. There are some, as is evidenced by people testifying today, who felt we should have still done that. That is not the decision the president made," Psaki added.
Meanwhile, Senator Jack Reed said that the US failed to handle Pakistan's support for the Taliban and called it one of the major reasons behind "American failure" in Afghanistan.
"The withdrawal of US troops this summer and the events surrounding it did not happen in a vacuum.
The path that led to this moment was paved with years of mistakes from our catastrophic pivot to Iraq, failure to handle Pakistan's support for the Taliban, and flawed Doha agreement signed by former president Donald Trump," Reed said during the Congressional hearing.
Senator Jim Inhofe, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Afghan government is now led by terrorists with long ties to Al-Qaeda.
"And we are at the mercy of the Pakistan government to get into Afghanistan airspace.
Even if we get there, we cannot strike Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan because we are worried about what the Taliban will do to the Americans still there," he said.
"The administration needs to be honest. Because of President Joe Biden's disastrous decision, the terrorist threat to American families is rising significantly, while our ability to deal with these threats has been decimated," he added.
Senator Deb Fischer, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "You are negotiating to try to get these bases to be able to use their installations. Because Afghanistan is a land-locked country, and when we have explanations from the military and they give examples for over-the-horizon, and use countries like Yemen, Libya and Somalia, that does not take into consideration that Afghanistan is landlocked, and we have to depend on Pakistan to give us airspace to get there."
During the hearing, Senator Reed maintained that throughout the war, the United States was unsuccessful in dealing with Pakistan supporting the Taliban, even as American diplomats sat down with Pakistani leaders, and its forces cooperated on counterterrorism missions.
"The Taliban enjoyed sanctuary inside Pakistan with time and space to regroup. More recently, the Taliban's resurgence can be tied to the Doha Agreement, which then president Trump signed in 2020," he said.
"This deal negotiated between the former Trump administration and the Taliban, without our coalition allies or even the Afghan government present, promised the end of the entire international presence in Afghanistan, including contractors critical to keeping the Afghan Air Force in the fight with virtually no stipulations," Reed said.
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