By Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle
Republican U.S. lawmakers tried on Wednesday to pick apart President Joe Biden’s defense of his withdrawal from Afghanistan as they attacked his judgment and honesty during a second day of contentious Congressional hearings with Pentagon leaders.
Biden has faced the biggest crisis of his presidency over the war in Afghanistan, which he argued needed to be brought to a close after 20 years of stalemated fighting that had cost American lives, drained resources and distracted from greater strategic priorities.
Republicans have accused him of lying about military commanders’ recommendations to keep 2,500 troops in the country, of playing down their warnings of the risks of a collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, and of exaggerating America’s ability to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for militant groups like al Qaeda.
“I fear the president may be delusional,” said Mike Rogers, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, calling the withdrawal an “unmitigated disaster.”
“It will go down in history as one of the greatest failures of American leadership,” Rogers said.
Biden’s approval ratings have been badly damaged by last month’s spectacular collapse of the two-decade war effort, which ended in a chaotic withdrawal that left U.S. troops dead and American citizens behind.
General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said both he and the top commander on the ground in Afghanistan had recommended keeping 2,500 U.S. troops as well as thousands more coalition forces in the country.
He told the House committee that he had warned that a complete withdrawal would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military and the Afghan government.
“That is in fact what happened,” McKenzie said.
In an August interview, Biden denied his commanders had recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. He said then: “No. No one said that to me that I can recall.”
Republicans accused Biden of being untruthful, also citing his promises to leave no Americans behind and scoffing at his assurances in July that Afghanistan wouldn’t become another Vietnam even as the Taliban’s advance accelerated.
“The president should resign,” Republican Representative Joe Wilson said.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that withdrawing to zero had a major impact on morale among Afghan troops, who had grown to depend on U.S. assistance for everything from air and intelligence support to training and equipment maintenance.
While the U.S. airlift of 124,000 people out of Afghanistan was a logistical success, Milley acknowledged for a second day that it was a “strategic failure” – one that left the Taliban back in power at the end of America’s longest war.
Democrats faulted Republicans for blaming Biden – who has been president since late January – for everything that went wrong during the 20 years U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan, and even before.
It was former President Donald Trump, a Republican, who first struck an agreement with the Taliban for the departure of all U.S. forces.
Representative Adam Smith, the committee’s Democratic chairman, said he agreed with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and accused many Republicans of trying to score political points.
“Our larger mission to help build a government in Afghanistan that could govern effectively and defeat the Taliban had failed,” Smith said.
“President Biden had the courage to finally make the decision to say no, we are not succeeding in this mission.”