Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, contradicted President Joe Biden’s claim last month that top military advisers didn’t recommend keeping a residual force in Afghanistan.
In a Sept. 28 Senate hearing, both generals said they believe the U.S. should have left a residual force of at least 2,500 troops, and that Biden received those recommendations.
But in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Aug. 18, Biden denied that his decision to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan went against the advice of his top military advisers.
Stephanopoulos, Aug, 18: But your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.
Biden: No, they didn’t. It was split. Tha– that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.
Stephanopoulos: They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?
Biden: No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a time frame all troops. They didn’t argue against that.
Stephanopoulos: So no one told — your military advisers did not tell you, “No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that”?
Biden: No. No one said that to me that I can recall.
Two days after that interview, we wrote that Biden’s recollection was contradicted by reporting from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, all of which reported, citing unnamed sources, that early in Biden’s presidency, top military officials recommended Biden keep a small residual force in Afghanistan.
Now Biden’s claim is contradicted by firsthand sources — the generals themselves.
At the Sept. 28 hearing, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe said that during a closed, classified hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier in September, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, then the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that he recommended in January that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
Inhofe asked McKenzie if he agreed with that recommendation.
“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,” McKenzie said. “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 were my personal views. I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government.”
(The recommendation in the fall of 2020 would have been made to then-President Donald Trump.)
Inhofe then asked Milley if he agreed with the recommendation to keep 2,500 forces in Afghanistan.
Milley said, “I do agree with that,” noting that he put his opinion in a memo that he wrote back in the fall of 2020 when Trump was president.
Inhofe asked McKenzie if he ever spoke to Biden about Miller’s recommendation.
“I was present when that discussion occurred,” McKenzie said. “And I’m confident the president heard all the recommendations, and listened to them very thoughtfully.”
The issue was again raised during the hearing by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton.
“I don’t discuss exactly what my conversations are with the sitting president in the Oval Office,” Milley said. “But I can tell you what my personal opinion was and I am always candid.”
Milley said it was assessment “back in the fall of ’20 and remained consistent throughout” that the U.S. should keep 2,500 to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan.
McKenzie said he “share[d] that assessment.”
Asked if Miller ever presented that opinion personally to Biden, McKenzie said, “I believe his opinion was well heard.”
Cotton then turned his attention to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Biden’s interview with ABC News, in which Biden said that he did not recall senior military leaders advising him to leave a small troop presence in Afghanistan.
“Is that true?” Cotton asked.
“First of all, I know the president to be an honest and forthright man,” Austin said. But he confirmed that the “input” from Milley, McKenzie and Miller “was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure.”
Asked about the seeming contradiction at a daily press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki emphasized that in the interview, Biden said the advice on the withdrawal timeline and whether to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan was “split.” She declined to say which military advisers disagreed with Milley, McKenzie and Miller. “I’m not going to get into specific details of who recommended what,” Psaki said.
Psaki also said that the question put to Biden was whether military advisers told him, “We should just keep 2,500 troops. It’s been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that”? Biden said no one said that to him.
Psaki noted that in his testimony on Sept. 28, Austin acknowledged that with “a force posture of 2,500, certainly, you’d be in a fight with the Taliban, and you’d have to reinforce yourself.”
“If we had kept 2,500 troops there, we would have increased the number of troops,” Psaki said. “We would have been at war with the Taliban. We would have had more U.S. casualties. 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. It’s up to the commander in chief to make those decisions.”
Editor’s note: FactCheck.org does not accept advertising. We rely on grants and individual donations from people like you. Please consider a donation. Credit card donations may be made through our “Donate” page. If you prefer to give by check, send to: FactCheck.org, Annenberg Public Policy Center, 202 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.