Watching the ubiquitous Sunday morning political talk shows, I was struck by one glaring omission: The media has mostly forgotten the political bombshells dropped by America’s top generals when they testified just last week on Capitol Hill.
In fact, only one of the five shows I watched bothered to even mention the explosive testimony, even though the generals raised serious questions about the competence and effective operation of the American government.
Maybe that’s the problem. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command made almost everybody look bad, including themselves, the Biden White House, and the Trump administration.
The focus in the nation’s capital instead quickly shifted to the embarrassing budget and infrastructure shenanigans. Then the country eclipsed the tragic milestone of 700,000 COVID-19 deaths over the weekend. The news cycle followed suit.
Lost in the shuffle was the serious dysfunction at the highest levels of U.S. political and military leadership, a long-term problem with possibly devastating consequences.
What was the main thrust of the testimony?
They generals described no less than a clear emergence of a great divide between America’s civilian and military leaders.
The testimony was nonpartisan in its criticism: The generals described not only the Biden administration’s fiasco in Afghanistan, but also the almost unprecedented chasm between the Pentagon and former President Trump.
The generals contradict Biden
Generals Milley and McKenzie were unequivocal in stating that they believed the complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was a mistake which, according to McKenzie, “would inevitably lead to the collapse” of Afghan forces and the Afghan government.
Austin said that “input was received” and “considered by the president.”
However, the White House publicly told the American people that President Biden’s advisors were unanimous in calling for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.
That unanimity never existed. Milley and McKenzie directly contradicted the White House, telling Congress they’d recommended the U.S. keep “ a steady state of 2,500 [troops] and it could bounce up to 3,500 … in order to move toward a negotiated solution.”
So, Biden ignored the generals?
Biden either lied when he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the did not remember being advised to keep troops in Afghanistan or he gave more ammunition to right-wing pundits and politicians who have made it a pastime to attack Biden’s mental competence.
The White House responded to the generals by insisting that Biden received “split” advice about what to do with American forces.
McKenzie’s testimony, in particular, makes that hard to believe. As the head of U.S. Central Command, he is directly responsible for military operations in Afghanistan. Both he and Milley said they had been firm and consistent in their recommendations about troop levels.
Also, Biden set a September 11 withdrawal date, and then moved it forward to the end of August, sticking to it despite the by then obvious consequence of a Taliban takeover.
What about Trump and Afghanistan?
Trump supporters who gloat about Biden’s failures in Afghanistan are hypocrites. They conveniently forget, as Milley reminded us, that Trump had ordered a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by January 15, before Biden’s inauguration.
Trump rescinded that when he got pushback from the military, but he still mandated a reduction in troops to the 2,500 number.
Worse yet for those trying to make a “Trump would have done better” argument is that the former president criticized Biden for not withdrawing by May 1.
On top of that, the generals made it clear that the Trump administration’s “Doha Agreement” with the Taliban in February of 2020 jump-started an inexorable process toward the Afghanistan military’s collapse.
McKenzie described the agreement as "the primary accelerant to lowering morale and general efficiency of the Afghan military."
The Doha deal promised the withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for a series of mostly fuzzy commitments from the Taliban, including a pledge to prevent al-Qaida from operating in areas the Taliban controlled. The Taliban complied with only one: It never attacked U.S. forces.
What happens with the war on terror?
The generals mostly dismissed a rosy scenario where the Taliban wouldn’t allow terrorism to flourish.
Milley starkly claimed the Taliban "was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with al-Qaida."
The generals also said there’s a “very real possibility” that al-Qaida or ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan in as little as six months. America fought its longest war and still could be back to square one.
Did Milley undercut Trump’s authority on China?
The right, in particular, had already turned Milley into a punching bag for making secret calls to his Chinese counterpart to tell him the U.S. did not intend to attack China, promising to warn him if Trump ever ordered aggressive action.
The calls, first revealed in the book “Peril,” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, indicated that Milley was fearful that Trump’s erratic behavior might spark a nuclear war with China.
Milley reportedly went as far as asking senior U.S. military officials to swear an oath that they would not launch nuclear weapons without Milley’s involvement.
In response, Trump said Milley should be tried for treason and called him a “complete nutjob.”
In his testimony, Milley argued that the calls were intended to “de-escalate” tensions that had been “generated by concerning intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack by the U.S.”
But shouldn’t the general have gone to Trump and other civilian leaders, expressed the concerns, and had them deal with the issue at a diplomatic level?
What does this mean for U.S. credibility?
Trump’s antics and attacks against U.S. allies and partners severely damaged America’s image abroad. Hopes the Biden administration would make up for it are quickly evaporating.
A recent Pew Research survey showed that Biden’s first few months did lead to a sharp rebound in U.S. favorability among people in friendly countries. By June, 62% of them viewed the U.S. favorably, even though only 34% did at the end of the Trump presidency.
But Biden’s recent crisis of competence, which I detailed in this piece last month, combined with the generals’ testimony, will almost certainly lead to a precipitous plunge.
Milley admitted that the disastrous exit from Afghanistan has severely damaged American credibility with friends and foes alike.
From the beginning of the American republic the roles of civilian and military leaders have been clearly defined. The military’s job is to offer options, plans, and scenarios. The elected politicians then get to decide about war and peace.
On very few occasions have tensions have reached a similar boiling point.
In the final days of the Nixon administration, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger issued on order similar to Milley’s. He told military commanders to check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing any nuclear launch order.
President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for repeatedly defying him.
President Lincoln dismissed the popular Gen. George McClellan for not pursuing the enemy as ordered.
More recently, President Obama pushed out Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010 because the commander of international forces in Afghanistan and his aides were quoted in a Rolling Stone article as disparaging administration officials, including then Vice President Biden.
Still, the clear contradictions and tensions between American military commanders and both Biden and Trump are unusually problematic.
The result is a world that is likely less safe than it was just two years ago.
Let me know what you think, here or on my Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/antoniomoraTV1/). Please subscribe (it's free) and share the link: https://aviewfromthecenter.bulletin.com/subscribe.
Cover photo: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (center), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (left), and Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (right) listen during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan at the Rayburn Office Building on Capitol Hill on Sept. 29, 2021. (Olivier Douliery, Pool/Getty Images)