Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended his actions in the tumultuous last months of the Trump administration, insisting that calls to his Chinese counterpart and a meeting in which he told generals to alert him if the president tried to launch a nuclear weapon were all part of his job duties as the country’s most senior military officer.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” he said. “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.”
General Milley used the ending of his opening remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee to address the turmoil of recent revelations in the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. He said he was directed by Mark Esper, then the secretary of defense, to make a call on Oct. 30 to his Chinese counterpart because there was “intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.”
General Milley’s testimony was another chapter in the story of the final chaotic days of the Trump administration, with government officials on edge as they worried about actions Mr. Trump might take in the last days of his presidency.
“I know, I am certain, President Trump did not intend on attacking the Chinese and it is my directed responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent,” he said. “My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: calm, steady, de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”
General Milley also addressed the frantic phone call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California two days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. A transcript of the call in the book said that the general agreed with Ms. Pelosi’s characterization of President Donald J. Trump as being “crazy.”
Speaking to the Senate panel, General Milley said, “On 8 January, Speaker of the House Pelosi called me to inquire about the president’s ability to launch nuclear weapons. I sought to assure her that nuclear launch is governed by a very specific and deliberate process. She was concerned and made various personal references characterizing the president. I explained to her that the president is the sole nuclear launch authority, and he doesn’t launch them alone, and that I am not qualified to determine the mental health of the president of the United States.”
Later that afternoon, he said, he called the generals involved in that process to “refresh on these procedures.”
In an unintentionally funny interchange with Senator Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, General Milley acknowledged that he spoke with a series of authors who have recently written books about the final months of the Trump presidency. All of the books present the general’s actions to check Mr. Trump in a favorable light.
“Woodward yes, Costa no,” General Milley replied, when asked if he had spoken to the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for their book “Peril.” The general said he has not read any of the books.
At that, Senator Blackburn asked him to read them and report back about whether the books accurately portray his actions.
Top U.S. military officers acknowledged publicly for the first time that they had advised President Biden not to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan ahead of the chaotic evacuation during which 13 American service members were killed.
Appearing before a Senate panel, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that military leaders were able to give their advice to the president during the lead-up to Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw. But, the general said, “Decision makers are not required in any manner or form to follow that advice.”
General Milley testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command. Both men, along with General Milley, were said to have advised Mr. Biden not to withdraw all troops. During the hearing, Generals Milley and McKenzie confirmed that.
Senators pressed the three men on why the Pentagon failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and Afghan military, why the United States did not start evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans from the country sooner, and whether Mr. Biden heeded their advice to keep a counterterrorism force of 2,500 on the ground.
Mr. Austin, a former four-star Army general who served in Afghanistan, conceded that the collapse of the Afghan army in the final weeks of the war — in many cases without firing a shot — took top commanders by surprise.
“We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we didn’t grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that the Taliban commanders struck with local leaders,” Mr. Austin said, referring to Ashraf Ghani, the former president of Afghanistan who fled the country as the Taliban took control.
“We failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight,” Mr. Austin said.
The hearing was also the first opportunity for General Milley to address criticism about his actions during the last tumultuous months of the Trump administration.
“My loyalty to this nation, its people, and the Constitution hasn’t changed and will never change as long as I have a breath to give,” General Milley said in his opening remarks. “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.”
General Milley used part of his opening comments to address the turmoil of recent revelations in the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. He said he made an Oct. 30 call to his Chinese counterpart, just before the November presidential elections, because there was “intelligence which caused us to believe the Chinese were worried about an attack on them by the United States.” He added that senior U.S. officials, including Mark Esper, the secretary of defense at the time, and Mike Pompeo, then the secretary of state, were aware of the calls.
Mr. Austin defended the Biden administration’s decision to close the sprawling Bagram Air Base, the military’s main hub in Afghanistan, in early July and instead focus on defending Kabul’s international airport as the main gateway in and out of the country, and acknowledged that the Pentagon badly misjudged the Afghan military’s will to fight.
“Retaining Bagram would have required putting as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in harm’s way, just to operate and defend it,” Mr. Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee in the first of two days of congressional hearings on Afghanistan. “And it would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: that was to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away.”
The secretary also defended the administration’s decision to end the frantic 17-day evacuation airlift by Aug. 31. “The Taliban made clear that their cooperation would end on the first of September, and as you know, we faced grave and growing threats from ISIS-K,” Mr. Austin said, referring to the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan. “Staying longer than we did would have made it even more dangerous for our people and would not have significantly changed the number of evacuees we could get out.”
General Milley echoed the danger that staying past the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline posed to U.S. troops.
“On the 1st of September we were going to go back to war again with the Taliban,” he said. “That would have resulted in significant casualties on the U.S. side and would have put American citizens still on the ground there at significant risk.”
But in an acknowledgment of the ongoing repercussions of the Taliban’s takeover of the country, General Milley said that American credibility around the world has been damaged by the ignominious end to the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Pressed by Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, General Milley said that American “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. And I think ‘damage’ is one word that could be used, yes.”
Mr. Austin and Generals Milley and McKenzie are set to testify before a House panel on Wednesday.
The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East expressed reservations about whether the United States could deny Al Qaeda and the Islamic State the ability to use Afghanistan as a launchpad for terrorist attacks now that American troops have left the country.
“That’s yet to be seen,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, said in response to a question at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “We could get to that point, but I do not yet have that level of confidence.”
President Biden has vowed to prevent Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from rebuilding to the point where they could attack Americans or the United States.
But General McKenzie’s response underscored how difficult that task will be and was somewhat more pessimistic than the assessments of other top Pentagon officials at the hearing.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said the military could monitor and strike Al Qaeda and Islamic State cells from bases far away, if necessary. “Over-the-horizon operations are difficult but absolutely possible,” he said.
Testifying alongside Mr. Austin and General McKenzie, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that a “reconstituted Al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility.”
General Milley added, “And those conditions, to include activity in ungoverned spaces, could present themselves in the next 12 to 36 months.”
After a New York Times investigation, the Pentagon acknowledged earlier this month that a U.S. drone strike in Kabul on Aug. 29 was a “tragic mistake” that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.
On Tuesday, senators got a chance to ask top military officials directly what went wrong. Senators pressed Pentagon officials about how the intelligence that prompted the strike became so misguided.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, acknowledged that challenges had overwhelmed the military’s intelligence gathering process during the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
“This time, tragically, we were wrong,” General McKenzie said in response to questions from Senator Mark Kelly, Democrat of Arizona. He said that in places like Afghanistan it was becoming much harder for the military “to create what we call the ecosystem — that allows you to see what’s going on on the ground and put all that together.”
The mistaken drone strike provided a horrific punctuation to the ending of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the Aug. 29 strike turned out to be false.
The explosives the military claimed were loaded in the trunk of a white Toyota sedan struck by the drone’s Hellfire missile were probably water bottles, and a secondary explosion in the courtyard in a densely populated Kabul neighborhood where the attack took place was probably a propane or gas tank, officials said.
General McKenzie took full responsibility for the strike on Sept. 17 at a virtual Pentagon news conference. He offered condolences to the families of those killed and said the Pentagon was exploring payments to them.
The general also said the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that ISIS was about to attack Kabul’s airport, as the organization had done three days earlier, killing more than 140 people, including 13 American service members.
The defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, has ordered a review of the military’s inquiry into the drone strike to determine, among other issues, who should be held accountable and “the degree to which strike authorities, procedures and processes need to be altered in the future.”
Congressional lawmakers, meanwhile, have said they wanted their own accounting from the Pentagon and were able to question the panelists on Tuesday.
Senior Defense Department leaders have conceded that the driver of the car, Zemari Ahmadi, was a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group and had nothing to do with the Islamic State, contrary to what military officials had previously asserted.
Mr. Ahmadi’s only connection to the terrorist group appeared to be a fleeting interaction with people in what the military believed was an ISIS safe house in Kabul. That contact led military analysts to make one mistaken judgment after another while tracking Mr. Ahmadi’s movements in his sedan for the next eight hours.
Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan, apologized on Sept. 17 for a botched drone strike that killed 10 civilians in Kabul.
As he admitted the mistake, he said that the military’s target had stopped at an ISIS “safe house” hours before the attack.
But a new Visual Investigation by The Times found that the house in question was in fact an Afghan family home.