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Fact Check: Military testimony on Afghanistan appears to contradict Biden’s previous statements on troop levels

<i>Alex Wong/Getty Images</i><br/>
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Alex Wong/Getty Images

By Tara Subramaniam and Holmes Lybrand, CNN

During a Senate hearing on Tuesday over the frenzied US withdrawal from Afghanistan, top generals seemingly contradicted earlier claims from President Joe Biden on the administration’s plan to remove troops.

In a mid-August interview, Biden repeatedly disputed that military advisers had told him he should keep troops in Afghanistan after the withdrawal deadline.

When asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulous whether “top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline,” Biden responded, “No, they didn’t.”

To clarify, Stephanopoulous asked, “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’?” To which Biden said, “No one said that to me that I can recall.”

Although top military officials “made a unanimous recommendation” on August 25 to end the military mission in Afghanistan and transition to a diplomatic one, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and US Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie both told Congress during Tuesday’s testimony that they personally supported keeping a small number of troops past the withdrawal deadline. They refused to share exactly what they had told the sitting President but shared their personal opinions on the situation.

“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,” McKenzie said. “I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. I also recommended earlier, in the fall of 2020, that we maintain 4,500 at that time. Those are my personal views.”

Milley told lawmakers that his assessment in fall 2020, which “remained consistent,” was that the US should “keep a steady state” of 2,500 troops.

Other top administration officials also pushed for a slower withdrawal, according to reporting from journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.

In their new book, “Peril,” Woodward and Costa write that Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, changed his recommendation about removing all US troops after a March meeting of NATO ministers. Around the same time, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin proposed a “gated” withdrawal with multiple stages, the authors write.

This debate spilled into Tuesday’s White House press briefing, where press secretary Jen Psaki said a “range of viewpoints” had been presented to Biden from his military advisers on how to proceed in Afghanistan, but ultimately it was up to the President to make strategic decisions.

Psaki also emphasized that none of Biden’s advisers recommended a long-term troop presence.

“I would note today in the testimony that was given by Secretary Austin, by General Milley, they made clear, Secretary Austin specifically said, if you stay there at a force posture of 2,500, certainly you’d be in a fight with the Taliban, and you’d have to reinforce,” Psaki said.

“It was also clear, and clear to him, that that would not be a long-standing recommendation, that there would need to be an escalation, an increase in troop numbers, it would also need, it would also mean war with the Taliban and it would also mean the potential loss of casualties. The President was just not willing to make that decision. He didn’t think it was in our, the interest of the American people or the interests of, of our troops,” she continued.

“There was no one who said five years from now we could have 2,500 troops and that would be sustainable,” Psaki said. “And I think that’s important for people to know and to understand.”

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