September 28, 2021

At Armed Services Hearing, Gen. Milley Concedes That Outcome in Afghanistan Would Have Been the Same No Matter When Troops Were Withdrawn

General Milley: “I think the end state probably would have been the same no matter when you did it.”

Video of the Hearing Exchange (Round 2 Questioning)

Washington, D.C. -- During today's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned General Mark Milley about Afghanistan’s outcome. General Milley conceded that “the end state probably would have been the same no matter when” the troops were pulled out. 

Transcript: Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Conclusion of Military Operations in Afghanistan and Plans for Future Counterterrorism Operations (Round 2 of Questioning)
United States Senate Committee on Armed Services 
Tuesday, September 28, 2021 

Senator Warren: General Milley, our military executed a massive operation during the month of August. As I understand it. It was larger than the Berlin airlift.

For the record, can you just tell us how many Americans you evacuated? 

General Milley: Almost 6,000. I can get you a precise number for the record, but it's about 6,000. 

Senator Warren: Let's get the right number for the record, but that's helpful. And how many people in total did the U.S. and coalition forces evacuate? 

General Milley: 124,000 total. 44,000 went out on non-U.S. aircraft. And the rest came out on U.S. aircraft. 

Senator Warren: Okay. An extraordinary effort, but still, it's hard to get everyone--. 

General Milley: Largest airlift in history. 

Senator Warren: Right. Hard to get everyone out. One problem, of course, is that there were so many Afghan SIV applicants in Kabul waiting to be evacuated because the Trump administration had essentially shut the program down.

Withdrawal was a massive operation conducted in a chaotic, unpredictable environment. And some people have criticized you for leaving on August 31st, but I just want to explore that for a minute.  

General Milley, once the Afghan government collapsed in August, would you say that staying past the date of their collapse would have exposed the force on the ground to substantial additional risk? 

General Milley: Yes. And that is exactly what we assessed that if we stayed past the 31st, the risk to force: U.S. military casualties. The risk to the mission: the ability to execute the-- continue to execute a NEO. And most importantly, the risk to the American citizens that are still there. Was going to go to -- we assessed -- very high levels. And we thought that was a level of risk that was unacceptable. 

Senator Warren: Okay. And just so I'm sure. And everybody's got this on the record. So if we had stayed another week or two or three, then it’s likely there would have been another attack that killed American servicemembers, is that what you're saying? 

General Milley: I would say that is a near certainty. 

Senator Warren: Alright. For years, we poured money into the Afghan government. And for years, we trained their army, we outfitted them with all the best American equipment, we provided them with overwhelming airpower. Even so, both the Afghan government and the army collapsed almost instantaneously.

So General Milley, let me ask you. Given how quickly the Afghan government and the Afghan army collapsed, do you think that either or both would have been able to stand on their own with just another few months or another few years of American assistance and training? 

General Milley: I think at this point that's unknowable but my estimate at the time was if you  kept advisors there, kept money flowing, etcetera, that we probably could have sustained them for a lengthier, indefinite period of time.

Whether or not you would have had a different result at the end of the day, that's a different question.  

Senator Warren: You know, when I hear you say that, it reminds me of all the years that I've sat now in the Senate Armed Services Committee and how many times the generals have come in front of us and when you point out all every way in which the Afghan government was failing, and the Afghan army was failing, the generals' respond with: but we're turning the corner now. 

General Milley: I didn’t say we’d turn the corner, Senator. I said we could sustain them. 

Senator Warren: And that we would be able to keep them and somehow when we got ready to withdraw they would be so well sustained that they would have not collapsed instantaneously, the way they did after 20 years of sustenance and training. 

General Milley: I think the end state probably would have been the same no matter when you did it.

Senator Warren: Well, you know. I believe that leaving a force behind would have necessitated that force staying indefinitely. 

General Milley: That’s right.

Senator Warren: And many of those servicemembers would have been exposed to unnecessary risk and harm.

General Milley: That’s exactly right

Senator Warren: We agree. And I also just want to say, this week we will have our fifth hearing on Afghanistan in the eight months since President Biden took office. During the Trump years, as the Afghan government and the Afghan army racked up one failure after another, the Republicans seemed far less interested in this topic—holding one public hearing a year. The Republicans’ sudden interest in Afghanistan is plain old politics. It is not the kind of oversight that we should have been exercising in years past.

So thank you, Mr. Chairman, for calling this hearing.