September 28, 2021

At Armed Services Hearing on Afghanistan, Secretary Austin Confirms that President Biden Followed the Advice of Military Advisors When Planning and Executing Withdrawal Operation

Senator Warren: “I believe President Biden had it exactly right: Withdrawing was long overdue.”

Video of the Hearing Exchange (Round 1 Questioning)

Washington, D.C. -- During today's Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In response to Senator Warren, Secretary Austin confirmed that President Biden followed the advice of military advisors in planning and executing that withdrawal. 

Transcript: Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Conclusion of Military Operations in Afghanistan and Plans for Future Counterterrorism Operations (Round 1 of Questioning)
United States Senate Committee on Armed Services 
Tuesday, September 28, 2021 

Senator Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

So I want to begin by zooming out, because it is not possible to understand our final months in Afghanistan without viewing them in the context of the 20 years that led up to them. Anyone who says the last few months were a failure but everything before that was great, clearly hasn’t been paying attention.  

In 2015, the Taliban conquered its first province since 2001. By October 2018, the Afghan government controlled only 54% of the 407 districts. And by May 2020, the Afghan government controlled less than a third of Afghan’s 407 districts. We poured money and support and air cover, and the Afghan government continued to fail.

By 2021, it was clear that 2,500 troops could not successfully prop up a government that had been losing ground and support to the Taliban for years.

Secretary Austin, I understand that you advised President Biden to stay in Afghanistan. But, as you acknowledge, staying or withdrawing is a decision for the President alone. So I want to focus on what happened next. Once President Biden made the decision to have U.S. forces leave the country, who designed the evacuation?

Secretary Austin: Well, Senator, again, I won’t address what I advised, but the advice I gave to the President. I would just say that in his calculus, this was not risk-free, and the Taliban, as we've said earlier in this hearing, were committed to recommencing their operations against our forces. His assessment was that in order to sustain that and continue to do things that benefitted the Afghans that would require at some point that he increase the presence -- our presence -- there in Afghanistan. So once he made the decision, then of course, from a military perspective -- in terms of the retrograde of the people and the equipment -- that was, that planning was done by Central Command, and certainly, principally, by General Miller. Very detailed planning. And then, we came back and briefed the entire inner agency on the details of that plan. 

Senator Warren: Okay. So the military planned the evacuation. Did President Biden follow your advice on executing on the evacuation plan?

Secretary Austin: He did.

Senator Warren:  Did President Biden give you all the resources that you needed?

Secretary Austin: From my view, he did. 

Senator Warren: Did President Biden ignore your advice on the evacuation at any point?

Secretary Austin: No, Senator. He did not. 

Sen Warren: Did he refuse any requests for anything that you needed or asked for? 

Secretary Austin: No. 

Senator Warren: So the President followed the advice of his military advisors in planning and executing this withdrawal.

As we’ve already established, the seeds for our failure in Afghanistan were planted many, many years ago, so let me ask you one more question, Secretary Austin. Knowing what you know now, if we had stayed in Afghanistan for another year, would it have made a fundamental difference?

Secretary Austin: Again, it depends on what size you remain in at and what your objectives are. There are a range of possibilities, but if you stayed there at force posture of 2,500, certainly, you'd be in a fight with the Taliban. And you'd have to reinforce yourself. 

Senator Warren: I appreciate you looking at it as a fighter, but I would also add one more year of propping up a corrupt government and an army that wouldn't fight on its own was not going to give us a different outcome. And anyone who thinks differently is either fooling himself or trying to fool the rest of us.

I believe President Biden had it exactly right: Withdrawing was long overdue. The withdrawal was conducted in accordance with the advice of his military advisors, who planned and executed every step of this withdrawal.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Or Madame Chair.