Alan Zendell, September 29, 2021
I’ve never been a fan of Monday morning quarterbacking. Looking back at what happened in the past can be an important learning tool, but laying blame recklessly through twisted 20-20 hindsight is at best a cheap shot and at worst a disaster. In this era of hyper-partisan division, that seems to happen whenever an official involved in a significant incident is invited to testify before Congress. The divide in the Senate was never more apparent than during yesterday’s testimony by Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley.
General Milley’s prepared statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee laid out an orderly, chronological history of events associated with ending our mission in Afghanistan. It was fact-based, drawing on White House and Defense Department emails and memoranda. Had Republicans not been sniping at Milley for weeks prior to his testimony, his statement could have been read as simply an objective reporting of events. If it seemed defensive it was only because it addressed controversial subjects.
Milley, backed up by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and head of the U.S. Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, reported on the significant events leading up to our withdrawal and the circumstances of his calls to his Chinese counterpart to assure him that then President Trump had no intention of attacking China. With respect to the latter, Milley asserted that he was carrying out his responsibility under the law to assure that possible diplomatic misunderstandings would not result in unintended armed conflict, and that high level Trump officials were notified of his actions. The first of his two calls to China was actually placed by then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
Discussing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Milley reviewed the orders he’d received from Trump, the last of which was to remove all American military personnel and contractors from the country by January 15, 2021, five days before Biden’s inauguration. In the post-election chaos surrounding Trump’s attempts to overthrow the result of the November election, that didn’t happen, leaving the Biden administration holding a very unsavory bag. As to the final withdrawal itself, the Joint Chiefs were in unanimous agreement that a contingent of American and NATO forces should remain in country during the transition to a negotiated power-sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
When Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 16th, abandoning it to the Taliban two weeks before an orderly withdrawal of U. S. and NATO forces was to be completed, the Joint Chiefs re-evaluated their options. They concluded that leaving forces behind would result in massive casualties, and additional terrorist attacks were almost certain. They changed their recommendation to President Biden advising him to withdraw all troops by August 31st. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was always going to be somewhat of a cluster-f**k; the collapse of the Afghan government made it worse and more chaotic, making the performance of our military in executing the evacuation of 124,000 people all the more remarkable.
Yet, in the face of all this testimony and information, Republican Senators chose to attack Milley for allowing himself to be interviewed by authors of what Josh Hawley (R-MO) called Trump tell-all books. Hawley was referring to Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, and two other recently published books, all of which painted Donald Trump in very unfavorable lights. Hawley will long be remembered for helping to incite the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol from a podium outside the White House, angrily pumping his fist in the air, demanding that the right-wing crowd prevent Biden from being certified as president by the Congress. Yesterday, he suggested that General Milley was so focused on being portrayed as a hero in those books that he failed to pay attention to events in Afghanistan, and demanded that he resign.
Here’s what really happened. Hawley, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and a few others who have tied their political futures to Trump were all enraged (more likely terrified) that the truth about Trump’s lies and instability would turn the public against him, and by extension, them. So they promulgated the notion that Milley was treasonously undercutting Trump’s authority and acting beyond his authority. Those are very serious accusations which evoke memories of the Nuremburg trials after World War II. One after another, high-ranking Nazis on trial for war crimes claimed they “were only following orders.” In the post-election chaos, with rumors flying in the journalistic and social media, Milley had the courage to make clear that he would not follow any illegal order, assuring adversaries with nuclear weapons that they had nothing to fear.
Unfortunately, Senator Hawley, who has distinguished himself as the most despicable, self-serving person in the Senate, was only interested in grandstanding.