Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called the war in Afghanistan a "strategic failure" for the United States during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee Wednesday, warning that the Taliban "remain a terrorist organization" and maintain ties with al Qaeda.
Milley made the comments testifying alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie for their second day of questions from lawmakers about the U.S. withdrawal of military assets from Afghanistan.
"The Taliban was and remain a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with al Qaeda," Milley testified. "I have no illusions who we are dealing with."
He added: again that the Taliban "have not broken with al Qaeda."
Milley's testimony came after he and McKenzie on Tuesday at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing said they assessed that the U.S. should maintain a presence of at least 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, despite President Biden's claims to the contrary.
But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., called the discrepancy a "huge misunderstanding."
"The president is the one in charge. This is ultimately what civilian control of the military means, and what I believe, is I believe, certainly, there were military commanders who said, nope, we should stick it out, we should keep 2,500 there," Smith said in his opening statement. "I think they were wrong, and so did the president."
Top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., during his opening statement Wednesday, called the withdrawal an "extraordinary disaster," and one that "will go down in history as one of the greatest failures of American leadership."
"I fear the president is delusional," Rogers said.
Biden and White House officials have said repeatedly that no military leaders advised him to leave a small military presence behind, with the president telling ABC News in August that "no one" recommended a 2,500-troop presence that he could "recall."
"There was a range of viewpoints, as was evidenced by their testimony, presented to the president and presented to his national security team, as would be expected, as he asked for – he asked for a clear-eyed – he asked them not to sugarcoat it – what their recommendations were," Psaki said.
Psaki maintained that had the president decided to listen to advisers' recommendations, the U.S. later "would have had to increase the number of troops, would have been at war with the Taliban, we would have more U.S. casualties."
"There are some who felt we should have still done that," she said. "That is not the decision the president made. It is up to the commander in chief who makes those decisions."
"Ultimately, regardless of the advice, it is his decision," Psaki said. "He is the commander in chief. He is the president. He makes the decisions about what is in the national interest, and he believed we should end the war."
Psaki again stressed that the president "made clear the advice was split."
"I think the American people should know the president is always going to welcome a range of advice, he asked for candor and directness… he is not looking for a bunch of yes men and women," Psaki said. "Ultimately, he is going to have to make the decision about what is in best interest of the United States."
She added: "If there is conflicting advice given, by necessity, some people's advice will not be taken."
Milley was also pressed on why he has not resigned after Biden ignored his recommendations.
"Senator, as a senior military officer, resigning is a really serious thing – it's a political act – if I'm resigning in protest," Milley said. "My job is to provide advice – my statutory responsibility is to provide legal advice or best military advice to the president, and that's my legal requirement. That's what the law is."
Milley added that the president "doesn't have to agree with the advice," and said he "doesn't have to make those decisions just because we're generals."
"It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken," Milley said. "This country doesn't want generals figuring out what orders we are going to accept and do or not. That's not our job."
He added, on a personal note, that "my dad didn't get a choice to resign at Iwo Jima, and those kids at Abbey Gate don't get a choice to resign."
"I'm not going to turn my back – they can't resign," Milley said. "So I'm not going to resign. There's no way."
"If the orders are illegal, we're in a different place," Milley said. "But if the orders are legal from civilian authority, I intend to carry them out."
Austin's, Milley's and McKenzie's testimony comes nearly a month after the Biden administration on Aug. 31 withdrew all U.S. military assets from the region after having a presence there for 20 years following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. An Aug. 26 suicide bombing took the lives of 13 U.S. service members – including 11 Marines, one Navy sailor and one Army soldier. Eighteen other U.S. service members were wounded. The bombing also left more than 150 civilians dead.
As the Biden administration began the withdrawal of military assets, provincial capitals across Afghanistan began to fall to the Taliban. By mid-August, the Taliban attained control of two-thirds of Afghanistan. And by the time the U.S. withdrew all U.S. troops from the country on Aug. 31, Kabul had also fallen to the Taliban. In mid-August, U.S. intelligence assessments projected the capital city could fall to the Taliban within 90 days.
The withdrawal concluded on Aug. 31, with the U.S. evacuating more than 124,000 individuals – including 6,000 Americans.
But administration officials admitted to leaving more than 100 American citizens behind. Administration officials, though, said their mission in Afghanistan had shifted from a military mission to a diplomatic one, with some saying they were working with the Taliban to ensure safe passage for those Americans and U.S. visa holders, as well as some Afghan allies, to evacuate the country.