Top US commanders opt for blunt honesty

Congressional testimony last week by the top Pentagon officials charged with the Afghanistan pullout made clear that President Joe Biden opted against their recommendation against completely withdrawing U.S. troops. Instead, Biden insisted on a hasty pullout, leading to disastrous results. The advisers didn’t seem proud about their assessment, nor did they try to sugarcoat the Pentagon’s various missteps that blocked a successful end to the 20-year war.

They were bluntly — and refreshingly — honest. America needs a lot more of that.

Washington politicians on both sides of the aisle have grown so fearful of the truth, they seem willing to say or do anything to hide it from the American people. Biden is only the latest in a long succession of U.S. leaders who have lied to protect their legacies and their own fragile egos rather than choose blunt honesty so the nation can learn from its mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.

In a Senate hearing, questioners gave Gens. Mark Milley and Kenneth McKenzie no room for evasion when it came to the advice they gave Biden about the potential consequences of a full withdrawal. Milley has served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under both Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Though he wouldn’t give specifics about his private conversations with them, Milley stated: “I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and I also recommended (to Trump) early in the fall of 2020 that we maintain 4,500 at that time. Those were my personal views. I also had a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government.”

McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command, agreed with Milley’s assessment, though neither believed the Afghan military’s collapse would come so quickly. In retrospect, though, they recognized how the forecasting by both presidents of a “date certain” withdrawal negotiated with the Taliban enemy contributed to Afghan troops’ feelings that they were being abandoned.

Biden not only rejected their advice, he proceeded to lie about it in an Aug. 18 ABC interview when he asserted that none of his advisers had recommended against the withdrawal.

Milley also acknowledged mistakes in trying to apply traditional U.S. military doctrine and training to a guerrilla warfare situation incompatible with the American model. In other words, U.S. commanders got it wrong and failed to pivot once they knew this.

Trump and Biden also failed to pivot, instead stubbornly insisting on specific parameters and timelines to meet their political needs. Biden’s administration continues trying to portray the result as a success when it was anything but that.

The first step in any lessons-learned exercise is admitting that there are lessons still to be learned. Milley and McKenzie get that. Too bad Biden still doesn’t.