President Biden and top military officials are telling different stories about their planning process to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
"I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and I also recommended early in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time, those were my personal views," Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said much the same thing: His view "back in the fall of 2020, [which] remained consistent throughout, [was] that we should keep a steady state of 2,500 and it could bounce up to 3,500, maybe, something like that, in order to move toward a negotiated solution."
That's not what Biden said to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in a mid-August interview. Then, Biden indicated he had either not received such advice or it did not reflect the consensus. "No, they didn't. It was split. That wasn't true. That wasn't true," the president said. "No. No one said that to me that I can recall." The White House reiterated that account Tuesday.
Congressional Republicans are focused on whether Biden was telling the truth, which is important. But they shouldn't lose sight of another question: whether the generals are following the directives of the elected, civilian commander-in-chief. We know they slow-walked former President Donald Trump on Afghanistan withdrawal and other issues, even before he gave last-minute directives at the end of his term.
Where generals once pushed back on Trump, often with the media's approval, are they undercutting Biden in retrospect now? Is this bureaucratic buck-passing, or perhaps a warning to the next president who disregards the brass?
Generals provide political leaders with important expert and strategic advice, as is appropriate. But in the age of forever wars, when your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. That's a major reason generals don't make the final decision to invade, stay, or go.
There was no Afghan state powerful enough to prevent a Taliban takeover, and the U.S. military could not wish or bomb one into existence. While the war continued, how to forestall the inevitable was up to the generals. But whether to continue the war is up to the people, our elected representatives — and our elected president. Generals can advise, but they shouldn't be an obstacle to presidents who choose to end an aimless war.