Psaki: Generals' Advice to Keep 2,500 Troops in Afghanistan 'Not a Long-Standing Recommendation'
18:19 GMT 28.09.2021 (Updated: 13:24 GMT 06.08.2022)
The White House was on the defensive on Tuesday after several top US generals testified before Congress that they had advised US President Joe Biden not to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan - advice he seemed to deny getting in an interview last month.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki's daily press conference began on Tuesday with a sharply worded question by Associated Press journalist Zeke Miller: “Did the president mislead the American public about the advice of his military advisers?”
The question was in reference to an August 19 interview with ABC journalist George Stephanopoulos in which Biden seemed to say his generals advised him against pulling all US troops out of Afghanistan, which the administration did on August 31.
“[Y]our top military advisors warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops,” Stephanopoulos asked Biden at the time.
“No, they didn't. It was split. Tha- that wasn't true. That wasn't true,” Biden replied.
“They didn't tell you that they wanted troops to stay?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“No. Not at - not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn't argue against that,” Biden answered.
“So no one told - your military advisors 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?’" the ABC journalist asked again.
“No. No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden said.
Psaki, after reading from the transcript, told the White House press corps how to interpret the exchange.
“What should everybody take from that? There was a range of viewpoints … presented by his national security team, as he asked for … It was also clear - clear to him that that would not be a long-standing recommendation, that there would need to be an escalation, an increase in troop numbers," she said.
"It would also mean war with the Taliban, and it would also mean the potential loss of casualties. The president was just not willing to make that decision, he didn’t think it was in the interest of the American people or the interest of our troops," Psaki added.
"Who in his military advisers told him it'd be fine to pull everybody out?" Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy later asked her.
"I'm not going to get into specific details of who recommended what," she replied, accusing Doocy of "dumbing it down."
However, CBS reporter Weijia Jiang then asked a similar question about what Biden meant by his advice being "split," to which Psaki replied that "these conversations don't happen in black and white or like you're in the middle of a movie. These conversations are about a range of options, about what the risk assessments are about every decision, and of course there are individuals whom come forward with a range of recommendations on what the right path forward looks like ... Ultimately regardless of the advice, it's his decision, he's the commander-in-chief, he's the president, he makes decisions about what's in the national interest."
Pentagon Leaders Say 'Input Was Received' by Biden
Nearly a month after the US withdrew its final soldiers and personnel from Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, and US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie defended their decisions during the pullout before US lawmakers on Tuesday.
“[T]he frustration on this committee about the chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan is not - and should never be - directed towards our troops,” US Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said, on Tuesday. “It was President Biden and his advisers who put them in that situation.”
“Even worse: this was avoidable. Everything that happened was foreseeable. My colleagues on this committee and the commanders in charge - we saw it coming. So we’re here today to understand what happened and why that advice was ignored,” he added.
© REUTERS / Patrick Semansky/PoolChairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2021.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2021.
Milley described to the committee how in the fall of 2020, when Donald Trump was still US president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, his analysis was that an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan risked losing the substantial gains they had made and could cause a complete collapse of the US-backed Afghan government.
He recalled that on the day that Trump fired then-US Defense Secretary Mark Esper from his position - November 9, 2020 - Esper had recommended in a memo that the US keep 2,500 to 4,500 in Afghanistan until the Taliban met further conditions for reduction, such as ending its support for al-Qaeda.* He said that two days later, he received a signed order to withdraw all US forces by January 15, but after pushback on the risks that was reduced to a withdrawal to 2,500 troops, plus enabling forces.
“When President Biden was inaugurated, there were approximately 3,500 US troops, 5,400 NATO troops, and 6,300 contractors in Afghanistan with a specified task of train, advise and assist, along with a small contingent of counterterrorism forces,” the top ranking US military officer said. “The strategic situation at inauguration was stalemate.”
He said that from January through April, Biden conducted a thorough review of the situation and received advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council, and others.
McKenzie said that he “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 are 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.”
Inhofe then commented that it was unclear if Miller’s recommendation actually got to Biden.
“Sir, I was present when that discussion occurred and I’m confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to them very thoughtfully,” McKenzie replied.
When Austin was later asked by US Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) if what Biden told Stephanopoulos was true, the Pentagon chief replied: “I know the president to be an honest and forthright man ... Their input was received by the president and considered by the president, for sure.”
In February 2020, Trump signed a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban* stipulating a conditions-based withdrawal of all US forces by May 1, 2021. However, just weeks before the deadline, Biden extended it until September 11, 2021 - the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda that led to the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Amid the withdrawal, the Taliban mounted a stunning offensive that seized much of the country, culminating in the capture of Kabul on August 16 as US troops remained in the city. Over the following two weeks, the US evacuated more than 120,000 Afghan civilians from the airport, many of whom had collaborated with the US during the 20-year occupation.
*terrorist groups banned in Russia and many other nations