WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Wednesday that the Trump administration didn't leave behind plans for a negotiated withdrawal from Afghanistan for him to use when he took over the Pentagon.
"There was no handoff to me of any plans for withdrawal," Austin testified Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. "In terms of hand-off from administration to administration, secretary to secretary, there was no handoff to me."
Austin's remarks came after General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that the failures in Afghanistan that ended with a chaotic withdrawal in late August were the result of 20 years of mismanagement by presidential administrations of both parties.
"This was a 20-year war and it wasn't lost in the last 20 days or even 20 months, for that matter," Milley said. "There's a cumulative effect to a series of strategic decisions that go way back."
Milley cited the failure to capture or kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in the early months of the war, when U.S. troops were "one thousand meters" away from him; the decision by the Bush administration to divert attention and resources to Iraq from Afghanistan in 2003; the failure to deal with Pakistan as a sanctuary for Taliban fighters; and the removal of U.S. advisers from Afghan military units three years ago as contributing factors.
Austin's predecessor, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, told the Military Times last month that there were plans for an "orderly withdrawal" after then-President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban in 2020.
"I thought we very much had a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in an orderly, deliberate process," Miller told Military Times. "Now why that wasn't executed by this administration is beyond my knowledge at this time."
Democrats and Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee divided sharply from the start of the hearing Wednesday on whether President Joe Biden should have kept some U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
Opening the second day of congressional testimony by top Pentagon officials, committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, dismissed as "completely idiotic" the notion that the president could have kept 2,500 troops in the country for the long-term, like the continuing U.S. presence in South Korea, in the face of Taliban gains.
But he acknowledged the withdrawal "certainly could have been handled better and could have been started sooner."
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the panel's top Republican, called Biden "delusional" for claiming the withdrawal was a success, describing it instead as "an unmitigated disaster." He said it was clear the administration "never had a plan," despite months of congressional pressure to come up with a strategy for withdrawing troops and present it to Congress.
Milley told the lawmakers that the "war was a strategic failure," and Austin said "there was no risk-free status quo option" in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Milley and General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee their personal view was that 2,500 troops should have stayed to bolster the Afghan government. Austin told the senators that Trump's 2020 peace deal with the Taliban had a "demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers" that U.S. military officials didn't fully realize, and that no one foresaw the Taliban's rapid takeover of the country in August.
In the House hearing, Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and former Marine, described the quick Taliban takeover as an "intelligence failure."
"I'll accept that criticism," McKenzie said.
Milley explained that failure by saying that the U.S. military hasn't developed an effective way to "read people's hearts."
Yet in September 2013, as U.S. military officials downplayed reverses in the field as more responsibility was being delegated to the Afghan security forces, then-Lt. Gen. Milley, the new deputy commander in Afghanistan, was sanguine, saying at a Kabul press briefing "the conditions are set for winning the war."
"This army and this police force have been very, very effective in combating against the insurgents every single day," Milley said, as recounted in "The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War," a book by Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock based largely on reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
According to Milley at the time, "have there been one or two outposts that have been overrun? Yes. But you're talking about 3,000 to 4,000 outposts that are in the country. So the bottom line is the Afghans have successfully defended the majority of the population of this country."