Top US generals said Tuesday that they advised keeping American troops in Afghanistan to bolster the Afghan government and expressed concern that the Taliban has not severed ties with Al-Qaeda.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said they had personally recommended that the United States maintain about 2,500 troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
President Joe Biden, in April, ordered a complete pullout of forces from Afghanistan by September 11, following through on an agreement reached with the Taliban by former president Donald Trump to end the US troop presence there.
Milley, McKenzie and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to address the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Milley was asked whether the pullout and chaotic evacuation from Kabul had damaged US credibility.
"I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world and with adversaries is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go and I think 'damage' is one word that could be used, yes," he said.
Milley said the Taliban "was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with Al-Qaeda," which used Afghanistan as a base to plot the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
"It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power or if the country will fracture into further civil war," he said.
"But we must continue to protect the American people from terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan," Milley said.
A reconstituted Al Qaeda or Islamic State with aspirations to attack America remains "a very real possibility," he added, but "it's too early to determine their capability."
- 'Took us all by surprise' -
Austin said the United States "did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership" in the Afghan armed forces.
"We helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation," he said.
"The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away -- in many cases without firing a shot -- took us all by surprise," the Pentagon chief said. "It would be dishonest to claim otherwise."
Austin said the United States had provided the Afghan military "with equipment and aircraft and the skills to use them" but "in the end, we couldn't provide them with the will to win."
- 'Deescalate' -
Milley also testified about calls he made to his Chinese counterpart in the waning months of the Trump presidency.
He said they were intended to "deescalate" tensions and the former president had no aim of attacking China.
"I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese," Milley said.
"My task at that time was to deescalate. My message again was consistent: stay calm and steady and deescalate. We are not going to attack you," he said.
The calls between Milley and his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, were first revealed in the book "Peril" by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.
The first call was on October 30, four days before the US presidential election, and the second was on January 8, two days after supporters of Trump stormed the US Capitol in an effort to prevent certification of Biden's victory.
Some Republican lawmakers have accused Milley of overstepping his authority and called for him to resign.
Milley defended his actions and said the calls were coordinated with the then-secretaries of defense.
"The specific purpose of the October and January calls was generated by concerning intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack by the US," Milley said.
"These military-to-military communications at the highest levels are critical to the security of the United States in order to deconflict military actions, manage crisis, and prevent war between great powers armed with nuclear weapons," he said.
"At no time was I attempting to change or influence the process, usurp authority, or insert myself into the chain of command," Milley added.
"I firmly believe in civilian control of the military as a bedrock principle essential to this Republic and I am committed to ensuring the military stays clear of domestic politics."
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