Milley, McKenzie face angry lawmakers over botched Afghan withdrawal, Abbey Gate

Under ferocious questioning from Republicans, the retired generals told a House meeting that the State Deparment's call for an evacuation came too late.
Patty Nieberg Avatar
Retired General Mark Milley faced a barrage of questions from Republicans over the Biden administration's handling of the Afghan withdrawal. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

In his first appearance in front of Congress since retiring, Gen. Mark Milley faced ferocious questioning from Republican lawmakers on the collapse of the Afghan war and the fatal scene at Kabul airport, while Democrats objected to laying 20 years of failed policy at President Biden’s feet.

Wearing a blue suit and burgundy tie rather than the uniform of the 4-star Army general he was until last September, Milley testified at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs committee hearing Tuesday on the Biden administration’s handling of the Afghan withdrawal in 2021. 

“I’m personally here today, voluntarily, to help the families of the 13 fallen at Abbey Gate, and the thousands of fallen, tens of thousands of wounded and countless other members who suffered the invisible wounds of war to help them get answers,” Milley said. “The process is going to take a considerable length of time. And we must also recognize that much of the record in fact was classified and beyond the scope of this open hearing.”

Milley testified alongside retired Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Central Command commander during the withdrawal. McKenzie told the lawmakers that, as the senior officer in charge, he was responsible for the 13 American deaths.

“I was the overall commander, and I and I alone bear full military responsibility for what happened at Abbey Gate,” McKenzie said.

Blaming two presidents

During the hearing, House Republicans and Democrats battled over narratives on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – agreeing on the failures of the withdrawal but simultaneously pointing fingers at the opposing Presidents’ role and outcomes in the 20-year war. 

Ohio Republican Rep. Warren Davidson lashed out at the Biden State Department while offering an apology to a group of families of military members killed in the Abbey Gate blast. 

“The State Department, to use a military term, had its head up its rear,” said Davidson. “[The State Department], in fact, thought we could just have an embassy and the good Taliban terrorists will take care of the bad Taliban terrorists. I mean, that’s essentially what happened. And because of that, we didn’t get our people out. We didn’t get our citizens out. We didn’t have the force posture. We didn’t have the facing. We failed and their loved ones are dead because of it. I apologize to my Goldstar families, your government failed you.”

California Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman called it a “highly politicized hearing trying to blame Biden.” Sherman noted that just the name of the hearing itself was already a political football. Republicans who control the committee originally intended to include “Biden’s strategic failure” in the formal name of the hearing, but both Milley and a second general refused to testify.

Milley blamed policy decisions over military operations, saying that the fundamental mistake of the multi-month withdrawal was a slow decision by the State Department to begin a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation, or NEO.

“There’s zero doubt in my mind there were mistakes made,” Milley said. “I think the fundamental mistake, fundamental flaw was the timing of the State Department call of the NEO, I think that was too slow and too late. And that then caused a series of events that resulted in the very last couple of days.”

However, Miley also said that had U.S. forces remained in the country, American troops would’ve “100%” been dragged into a protracted war with the Taliban.

“It’s a binary choice that there’s not a lot of gray in between and I think that if you decide to stay, there’s a risk associated with that,” he said. 

Subscribe to Task & Purpose today. Get the latest military news and culture in your inbox daily.

Iowa Republican Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks challenged the strategic decision to leave Bagram Air base, referencing her time as an Army nurse when she pushed back against leadership on recommendations that were not in her patients’ best interest “and would have cost them their lives.” 

“We expect to have pushback from the military when a State Department or a Commander in Chief is doing things that are not in the best interest of this country and in the best interest of our service men and women,” she said.

‘More carrots than stick’

Both McKenzie and Milley testified that maintaining a force of 2,500 U.S. troops, contractors and NATO forces would’ve helped ensure conditions were met in an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban – or as McKenzie put it – an aggressive negotiation that “had a few more sticks and not all carrots.”

“I consistently supported a negotiated end of the war but only if there was a reduction in violence, leading to a permanent ceasefire and there were Afghan to Afghan negotiations leading to a power sharing agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban,” Milley said. “The fundamental tension facing the President, in fact two Presidents, was that no one could satisfactorily explain when or even if those conditions would ever be met.”

In 2020, the Trump administration came to an agreement with Taliban leadership known as the Doha accords. The deal established that the U.S. would begin to withdraw its roughly 13,000 troops from the country. Then in August 2021, remaining American troops and U.S. contractors left the country in a withdrawal which the State Department described in a report as “highly unusual, with no comparable situation since the U.S. departure from Vietnam in 1975.” 

The department said that the U.S. did not properly plan for the chaos of the Afghanistan withdrawal or respond quickly enough as the messiness of the situation became clear.

Miley told lawmakers that even to this day, he doesn’t know about the number of Americans and Afghan allies left behind after the evacuation because it’s not mandatory that citizens register with the State Department. He added that finding every single American in an active war zone would not be realistic or feasible.

Abbey Gate and lost equipment

During the hearing, the generals also addressed the testimony of a former Marine sniper who told the same committee last year that he and a fellow Marine had spotted a suspect who they believe was a suicide bomber in the days before the Abbey Gate bombing. Both generals agreed that committees should proceed with relevant witnesses and request all documents for better transparency.

Lawmakers also asked about the $7.2 billion worth of U.S. equipment that ended up in Taliban hands after the withdrawal.Miley noted the equipment — which was paraded and shown off by the Taliban in the months following the withdrawal — was U.S.-made but owned by the Afghan forces. Miley said that it would’ve been dangerous for troops to go around the country and police that equipment in summer 2021.

Despite two decades of war and a failed military strategy, McKenzie told lawmakers that Congress should continue to appropriately resource U.S. Central Command “so they have the opportunity to do surveillance in Afghanistan.”

The latest on Task & Purpose