President Joe Biden's top military officials on Tuesday testified that ahead of the chaotic exit from Afghanistan in which 13 American troops and scores of civilians were killed they recommended keeping troops in the country past August. That directly contradicts earlier comments by the president that he was never advised to keep troops in the country.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers during a Senate hearing on the final days of America's longest war that he recommended Biden keep some 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, effectively prolonging the war into a third decade, something the president considered during his campaign.
"I won't share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion. And my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation," Milley told the Senate panel. "And I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan."
Milley testified alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, who said he also advised Biden not to withdraw troops and continue the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
"I was present when that discussion occurred, and I am confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to them very thoughtfully," McKenzie said.
The comments from McKenzie and Milley directly contradict statements Biden made in August, when he told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos he could not "recall" any recommendation to keep troops deployed.
"So no one told -- your military advisers did not tell you, 'No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that'?" Stephanopoulos asked last month.
Biden rejected the idea, saying, "No, no one said that to me that I can recall."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki pushed back in a news conference Tuesday afternoon in response to questions as to whether Biden had misled the public in his ABC interview about the advice his military advisors had provided regarding pulling troops out of Afghanistan. Psaki said Biden emphasized that advisers were “split” on whether to pull out all troops or extend their presence in Afghanistan, though she would not go into details on who supported a troop pullout.
Psaki also said Austin and Milley’s testimony made clear that extending a troop presence would have renewed fighting with the Taliban and led to more U.S. casualties.
Previously, a key goal of coalition forces was to prop up a democratic Afghanistan government and military force in hopes that one day the U.S. supported government could stand on its own. But corruption ran rampant among Afghan government officials and military leaders. And most of the Afghan military and police forces surrendered their arms and allowed the Taliban to conquer the country with relatively little fighting.
"In the end, we couldn't provide them with a will to win," Austin told lawmakers.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated with a response from the White House to Gen. Milley’s testimony.