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Defense Officials Testify At Senate Hearing On Afghanistan


The United States' top general, Mark Milley, is testifying with other Pentagon officials about the exit from Afghanistan and also lingering questions over his actions in the waning days of the Trump administration. Joining us for more is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, I know testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee is ongoing, but what have we been hearing so far?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, most interesting things we've been hearing is from General Mark Milley. He pointed out that President Trump wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by January 15 - of course, five days before President Biden was inaugurated. Let's listen to what he had to say.


MARK MILLEY: On 11 November 2020, I received an unclassified signed order directing the United States military to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan no later than 15 January 2021.

BOWMAN: Now, he said that order was later rescinded, but of course, we all know what the chaotic scene was like at Kabul airport - you know, Afghans trying to get into the airport, U.S. troops under attack and so forth. So you can imagine how chaotic things would have been had all U.S. troops pulled out by January 15. It would have been much, much worse - getting Americans out and getting Afghans out who helped the Americans.

MARTÍNEZ: Tom, there's also been questions raised about General Milley's calls with his Chinese counterpart in the final days of the Trump administration. What more can you tell us about that?

BOWMAN: Well, in a book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, they said there were secret calls with his Chinese counterpart, General Li, but General Milley pushed back hard on that. He said, listen; there were two calls. They were both coordinated before and after with then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and then, following that, Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller. He said the calls were made because there was concerning intelligence that Chinese forces were put on alert, believing that there would be an attack by the U.S. In one call, General Milley said - on October 30, said eight people were on the call with me, and there was a readout of the call after that phone call with his Chinese counterpart. Another one on January 8th - they were 11 people on that call, and again, readouts were made to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and also White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. So clearly, not secret calls, as were alleged in that book.

MARTÍNEZ: One more thing, Tom - how would you characterize the mood at the Pentagon? I mean, do they feel under siege right now over some criticisms of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: No, I think they do feel under siege, criticism from Republicans about - why did you move so quickly? Why didn't you keep more troops there? The general said, listen; we wanted to keep 2,500. It was decided to pull everyone out. And I think also criticism from some in the State Department - why didn't you leave the larger air base at Bagram, north of Kabul, open? It has two runways. Kabul Airport has one. And basically, the general said, listen; we were told to protect the Embassy in Kabul and protect the airfield at Kabul. We were not told to reopen Bagram Air Base. And they were also asked, you know, why didn't you anticipate the Afghan forces falling in the country, falling so quickly? And General Milley said, listen; the earliest estimates were October and November, and we didn't have U.S. advisers out with Afghan forces. We didn't get a sense of their will to fight.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.