Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen has reported from Afghanistan since 1993. His new book is “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Top American generals warned President Joe Biden that the Afghan military would collapse. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in essence on Tuesday that both former President Donald Trump and Biden had botched negotiations with the Taliban – and the net result of the US actions was a “logistical success but a strategic failure.”
If the old joke is true – that in Washington, the definition of a gaffe is telling the truth in public – then Milley and the other military leaders who testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill committed many gaffes.
At a televised hearing of the US Senate Armed Services Committee featuring Milley, CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, and the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin – himself a retired four-star general and former CENTCOM commander – all told a great deal of truth.
Generals Milley and McKenzie said that they advised the Biden administration that unless the US kept 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan military would collapse. They also said that the ground commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, provided the same advice.
This clearly contradicts what President Biden told ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos last month – that the US military didn’t advise him to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
In answer to a question from a senator, Gen. Milley conceded that the abrupt and complete US withdrawal had “damaged” US credibility around the world.
Milley also said that both the Trump and Biden administrations made a mistake by putting specific dates on the US withdrawal rather them making it a conditions-based withdrawal.
Relatedly, McKenzie and Austin both agreed that the Doha agreement with the Taliban that was negotiated by the Trump administration and signed in February 2020, and which laid out the timeline for a total US withdrawal, significantly undercut the morale of the Afghan military.
Milley blamed the US intelligence community for missing the “scale and scope, plus the speed” of the collapse of Afghan government, testifying, “All the intel assessments, all of us got that wrong. There’s no question about it. That was a swing and a miss on the intel assessment of 11 days in August, there’s nobody that called that.”
In fact, according to CNN’s reporting before the fall of Kabul, the US intelligence community was predicting in early August that the Taliban could take Kabul within a month to three months, which at the time seemed like a reasonably accurate assessment of how dire the situation was becoming.
Milley described the US airlift of more than 120,000 Afghans, US citizens and other nationals from Kabul as a “logistical success,” but he called the overall policy in Afghanistan a “strategic failure.”
The fruits of that failure have been starkly clear from the actions of the Taliban during just the past month.
In a highly symbolic move on September 17, the Taliban’s feared religious police commandeered the building that once housed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
The next day, the Taliban ministry of education summoned only teenage boys back to school, but no female teens. They remain at home, unschooled.
The following day, the mayor of Kabul decreed that women can work for the city, but only in jobs that could not be done by men, such as cleaning toilets used by women.
Then Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, a founder of the Taliban, told the Associated Press that the regime would resume the practice of amputating the hands of thieves.
And earlier this month, the Taliban appointed Siraj Haqqani, who the UN has identified as part of the leadership council of al Qaeda, as the acting Minister of the Interior.
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No wonder then that Gen. McKenzie testified he was not confident that al-Qaeda and ISIS wouldn’t regroup in Afghanistan now that the US has withdrawn from the country.
The upshot of Tuesday’s hearing was that even the most senior US generals couldn’t defend the debacle that has unfolded in Afghanistan during the past several weeks, a disaster owned by President Biden, even if it was teed up by President Trump’s ill-fated “peace” negotiations with the Taliban that culminated in the Doha agreement.