House testimony renews questions about Biden’s veracity in defending his Afghanistan withdrawal decision

‘A PRETTY CONSISTENT ASSESSMENT’: Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, now retired, insisted he wasn’t making big news Tuesday when he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that just about everyone among the senior leadership at the Pentagon recommended President Joe Biden leave at least 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from taking over.

Milley said the opinion was “a pretty consistent assessment” by him and other members of the uniformed military up to and including the secretary of defense. “My analysis based on my assessment and the recommendations of the commanders, to include Gen. [Frank] McKenzie and the consensus of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was that we needed to maintain a minimum force of 2,500 troops on the ground, mostly special forces, with allied troops and contractors, in order to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces and its government until the diplomatic conditions of the Doha Agreement were met,” Milley testified, noting he’s made similar statements in previous congressional testimony. “Without this support, it was my view at the time that it was only a matter of when, not if, the Afghan government would collapse and the Taliban would take control.”

But the fact that Milley said so plainly that recommendation against withdrawal was the clear consensus of the Pentagon caught the ear of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was fired by then-President Donald Trump shortly after the 2020 election in part for opposing Trump’s plan to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before he left office.

“Both he and Gen. McKenzie said that they, to include Secretary [of] Defense Lloyd Austin, had recommended to the president that 2,500 troops be at that remaining country,” Esper, who is now CNN’s global affairs analyst, said Wednesday. “And of course we know President Biden said later to George Stephanopoulos on ABC, that’s not the case — that he wasn’t told that.”

FORMER TOP GENERALS DECRY FATAL MISTAKES IN BIDEN’S DISASTROUS 2021 AFGHANISTAN WITHDRAWAL ORDER

BIDEN IN 2021: ‘NO ONE SAID THAT TO ME THAT I CAN RECALL’: In that Aug. 18, 2021, ABC interview, Stephanopoulos grilled Biden repeatedly about whether he was acting against the advice of his top military commanders. Here’s part of the exchange:

Stephanopoulos: Your top military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline. They wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.
Biden: No, they didn’t. It was split. That wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.
Stephanopoulos: They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?
Biden: No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a time frame all troops. They didn’t argue against that.
Stephanopoulos: 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”?
Biden: No. No one said that to me that I can recall. 
A few minutes later:
Stephanopoulos: So would you have withdrawn troops like this even if President Trump had not made that deal with the Taliban?
Biden: I would’ve tried to figure out how to withdraw those troops, yes, because look, George, there is no good time to leave Afghanistan. 

AL QAEDA AND ISIS RECONSTITUTING: The testimony from Milley and retired Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, has reopened old wounds among Afghanistan veterans who feel betrayed by the withdrawal after 20 years of blood and treasure, especially after the new CENTCOM commander, Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, testified just yesterday that the Islamic State and al Qaeda are making a comeback.

“I would tell you that we do see the Taliban is harboring al Qaeda,” Kurilla told the House Armed Services Committee Thursday. “The risk of an attack emanating from Afghanistan is increasing. I assess ISIS-Khorasan retains the capability and the will to attack U.S. and Western interests abroad in as little as six months, with little to no warning.”

“I’m talking to veterans. They are really, really upset and feel a sense of betrayal by the way this went down,” retired Lt. Col. Scott Mann said on CNN. Mann, a former Green Beret, is the author of the book Operation Pineapple Express, which details the efforts of a group of Green Berets to save the lives of comrades and Afghans during the chaotic 2021 withdrawal from Kabul.

“I think I’m speaking for a lot of veterans that when I watched that testimony, these two general officers who both said they knew this was coming, they knew this was going to happen,” Mann told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “The question that so many veterans have on their minds is why did a flag officer not throw his or her stars on the table and take a stand against this, particularly seeing the way that ISIS-K and al Qaeda are now reemerging in a place where 9/11 originated from? It just makes no sense to me.”

‘GLOBAL IMPLICATIONS’: MILITARY LEADERS WARN OF GROWING CHINA-RUSSIA-IRAN ALLIANCE

Good Friday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, written and compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre) and edited by Stacey Dec. Email here with tips, suggestions, calendar items, and anything else. Sign up or read current and back issues at DailyonDefense.com. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow me on Threads and/or on X @jamiejmcintyre

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NOTE TO READERS: Daily on Defense goes on spring break from April 1 to April 15. While we’re away, you can still find breaking defense news on the Washington Examiner’s national security and defense page. 

HAPPENING TODAY: CRUNCH TIME FOR THE BUDGET: House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) is predicting passage of the $1.2 trillion “minibus” spending bill that will fund the rest of the federal government for the rest of this fiscal year, but it may cost him his job.

“It will pass. We’re whipping the bill, and I expect a good number,” Johnson said, after agreeing to expedite the vote on the budget bill under a process that requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

The compromise measure, meant to avert a shutdown at midnight and resolve the long-simmering dispute over the federal budget, has the hard-right House Freedom Caucus hopping mad and talking about finding a new “more effective” speaker.

“No @HouseGOP should vote for the #SwampOmnibus with these earmarks,” the caucus posted on social media. “A massive spending bill drafted in secrecy and dropped on us in the middle of the night is being rushed to the House floor for a vote with less than 36 hours to review.”

While lawmakers will likely miss the midnight deadline, requiring a weekend Senate session, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) said on CNN, “And so, there may be a shutdown over the weekend. I don’t like that idea. I think this is a terrible way to run a government.”

“This was supposed to be done last October. And so here we are. We’re still working on last year’s appropriation bills while we’re trying to start on this year’s appropriation bills that are supposed to be done in October,” Rounds said. “It’s a terrible thing to do.’

“It is a significant bill. It’s about $1.19 trillion, or 70% of our total overall annual budget,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said on Fox News. “That’s because the Department of Defense is one of the six bills that’s up for us to pass. I think we have to avoid a government shutdown at all costs. It sends a terrible signal globally for us to shut down the federal government.”

“I also think the House should take up and pass the supplemental that will fund Ukraine, fund Israel, and fund humanitarian aid. My hope is that Speaker Johnson will put that on the floor just after we clear these annual appropriations bills,” Coons said. “I continue to think that the best step for us to take is to take up and pass the bipartisan bill that was negotiated at great length here by Republican Sen. [James] Lankford and Democratic Sen. [Chris] Murphy with Sen. [Kyrsten] Sinema.”

REPUBLICAN TONY GONZALES BALKS AT BIPARTISAN FUNDING BILL: ‘COUNT ME OUT’

BLINKEN IN ISRAEL: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Israel today meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wartime Cabinet as Netanyahu seems determined to ground assault on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, over U.S. objections.

“There are more than a million people in Rafah, many of whom were displaced from other parts of Gaza. A major ground operation there would mean more civilian deaths. It would worsen the humanitarian crisis. There is a better way to deal with the threat — the ongoing threat posed by Hamas,” Blinken said during a stop in Egypt yesterday.

Blinken cited a U.S.-sponsored resolution declaring “the imperative of an immediate and sustained ceasefire,” set for a vote today in the United Nations Security Council, and expressed hope that negotiations in Doha between the United States, Egypt, and Qatar might soon bear fruit.

“Negotiators continue to work, the gaps are narrowing, and we’re continuing to push for an agreement in Doha,” Blinken said. “There’s still difficult work to get there, but I continue to believe it’s possible.”

US AND ISRAEL HEADED FOR ‘BREACH’ OVER LAST HAMAS BATTLE: ‘NOT GOING TO STOP US’

UKRAINE BOMBARDED, AGAIN: Overnight, Ukraine was hit by another massive attack by Russian missiles and drones, targeting the capital Kyiv for the first time in six weeks. “Falling wreckage still damaged apartment buildings and injured 13 people, including a child,” the Associated Press reported, citing local officials.

Ukraine claimed its air defenses shot down all 31 of the missiles that were targeting Kyiv and shot down 92 of the 151 Russian “aerial targets,” including 55 drones and 35 cruise missiles. “Ukraine needs more air defense!” the Ukraine Defense Ministry posted on its social media page.

“Patriots and other systems are now needed in Ukraine for our cities and communities,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video address. “With all our partners, we are always talking about increasing our ability to defend the sky. The partners have the air defense systems that are needed for this, and they can help. It is worth doing so. It is worth protecting lives.”

“On the other hand, every Russian terrorist attack shows that the world’s sanctions against Putin’s system are not yet sufficient. Every Russian missile used by these savages to attack our country contains components manufactured by companies from other countries — not from Russia,” Zelensky said. “There are at least 53 types of such components in the design of the X-101 missiles. The Kinzhal missile has at least 49 types of components that Russia does not produce.”

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

THE RUNDOWN: 

Washington Examiner: ‘Global implications’: Military leaders warn of growing China-Russia-Iran alliance

Washington Examiner: Former top generals decry fatal mistakes in Biden’s disastrous 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal order

Washington Examiner: US submits resolution to UN for immediate ceasefire in Gaza that secures release of hostages

Washington Examiner: US and Israel headed for ‘breach’ over last Hamas battle: ‘Not going to stop us’

Washington Examiner: Israel’s renewed battle at Shifa Hospital emblematic of difficulty wiping out Hamas

Washington Examiner: More than 10% of buildings in Gaza have been destroyed in war: UN

Washington Examiner: New transcript describes Trump’s chilling response to chaos that unfolded on Jan. 6

Washington Examiner: Fani Willis pushing for summer Trump trial even as her fate on case hangs in balance: Report

Washington Examiner: Video shows illegal immigrants storming US border wall

Washington Examiner: Johnson’s reliance on minority gives Democrats confidence they’re headed for victory in November

Washington Examiner: Republican Tony Gonzales balks at bipartisan funding bill: ‘Count me out’

Washington Examiner: GOP blasts funding increase for impeached Mayorkas tucked in spending deal

Washington Examiner: Opinion: Biden must revitalize the nuclear arsenal

Washington Examiner: Opinion: The TikTok bill proves Congress can get serious about national security

Washington Examiner: Opinion: Christine Wormuth’s cuts to the Army’s warfighting capabilities are wrong

Washington Examiner: Speaker Mike Johnson’s fake fiscal conservatism

Wall Street Journal: Russians Are Growing Tired of War

Wall Street Journal: Robots Are Entering The Ukraine Battlefield

Washington Post: Nervous Europe Explores Using Russian Assets To Aid Ukraine

Military.com: Money for 5.2 Percent Troop Pay Raise, Enlisted Hardship Bonuses Included in Last-Minute Government Funding Bill

Defense News: U.S. Navy Making Aegis Updates, Training Changes Based On Houthi Attacks

Bloomberg: Yemen’s Houthis Tell China, Russia Their Ships Won’t Be Targeted

Reuters: Red Sea Fighting Traps Two Oil Ships In Houthi Waters

Reuters: Somali Pirates Return, Adding To Global Shipping Crisis

Breaking Defense: It’s Official: The F-35 Will Not Get a New Engine anytime soon

Defense News: F-35 Delivery Delays Frustrate European Air Force Upgrade Plans

Air & Space Forces Magazine: ‘Flying IEDs’: Combatant Commanders Tell Congress Small Drones Are a Big Problem

The War Zone: XQ-58 Valkyrie Drone Family Has Grown to Five Variants

Air & Space Forces Magazine: Space Force Wants IOC for Tactically Responsive Space in 2025

SpaceNews: US Military to Boost Surveillance Assets in Orbit

DefenseScoop: Michael Sulmeyer Tapped for New Top Pentagon Cyber Policy Role

Air & Space Forces Magazine: One General’s Quest to Vibe Check Air Force Culture

Washington Post: Intel Analyst Shared Classified Information on Discord, Investigators Say

Stars and Stripes: Air Force 2-star pleads not guilty to sexual assault

Air & Space Forces Magazine: INDOPACOM Boss on China: ‘Haven’t Faced a Threat Like This Since World War II’

Task & Purpose: Families at Edwards Air Force Base Living in RVs for Housing Relief

Military.com: Medical Care Shortfalls for US Personnel in Japan Trigger Push from Lawmakers for Improvements

AP: Ghost Army members who deceived Nazis with battlefield ruses in WWII given Congressional Gold Medal

Washington Post: Alfred M. Gray Jr., Who Shook Up The Marines As Commandant, Dies At 95

Air & Space Forces Magazine: Farewell, Warthog: A-10 Demo Team Announces Its Last Season

The Cipher Brief: White House Top AI Advisor – On Disinformation, China Threats, and Future of War

The Cipher Brief: Report on Iran’s Nuclear Program Stokes Alarm – and Disagreement Over How to Respond 

The Cipher Brief: Opinion: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom: Why It Matters to Europe and to America

The Cipher Brief: Opinion: The ‘No Limits’ Partnership Between China and Russia has some Serious Limits

THE CALENDAR: 

FRIDAY | MARCH 22

8:30 a.m. 3351 Fairfax Dr., Arlington, Virginia — National Defense Industrial Association Human Systems Conference with Patrick Mason, head, Office of Naval Research Warfighter Performance Department https://www.ndia.org/events

9 a.m. 2118 Rayburn — House Armed Services Cyber, Information Technologies, and Innovation Subcommittee hearing: “The Technology and AI Fight for 21st Century Operations in the Department of Defense,” with testimony from John Sherman, DOD chief information officer; Craig Martell, DOD chief digital and artificial intelligence officer; and Lt. Gen. Robert Skinner, director, Defense Information Systems Agency https://armedservices.house.gov/hearings/citi-hearing

7 p.m. 1324 4th St. NE — Politics and Prose Bookstore book discussion: Collisions: The Origins of War in Ukraine and the New Global Instability, with author Michael Kimmage, professor of history at the Catholic University of America, and Linda Kinstler, executive editor, the Dial https://www.politics-prose.com/michael-kimmage

TUESDAY | MARCH 26

9 a.m. — Wadhwani Center for AI and Advanced Technologies virtual discussion: “Scaling AI-enabled Capabilities at the DOD: Government and Industry Perspectives,” with Navy Capt. M. Xavier Lugo, algorithmic warfare division chief for artificial intelligence scaffolding/integration, Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office; Col. Matthew Strohmeyer, joint all-domain command and control experimentation division chief, Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office; and Jason Brown, general manager for defense, Applied Intuition https://www.csis.org/events/scaling-ai-enabled-capabilities

WEDNESDAY | MARCH 27

10 a.m. — Wadhwani Center for AI and Advanced Technologies virtual discussion: “The DARPA Perspective on AI and Autonomy at the DOD,” with Matt Turek, deputy director, Information Innovation Office, and Gregory Allen, director, Wadhwani Center for AI and Advanced Technologies https://www.csis.org/events/darpa-perspective-ai-and-autonomy

TUESDAY | APRIL 2

2 p.m. 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW — Brookings Institution in-person and virtual discussion: “Nuclear challenges for the next U.S. administration,” with Robert Einhorn, senior fellow, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative, Brookings; Amy Nelson, fellow, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Brookings; Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow, and Director, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Brookings; Caitlin Talmadge, nonresident senior fellow, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Brookings; and Melanie Sisson, fellow, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Brookings https://www.brookings.edu/events/nuclear-challenges

WEDNESDAY | APRIL 3

5 a.m. Brussels, Belgium — NATO Foreign Affairs Ministers meet at NATO Headquarters April 3-4 https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news

7:45 a.m. 2425 Wilson Blvd., Arlington Virginia — Association of the U.S. Army “Coffee Series” in-person discussion with Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo https://www.ausa.org/events/coffee-series/camarillo

THURSDAY | APRIL 11

TBA House Chamber — House of Representatives holds a joint meeting with the Senate to receive an address from Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida 

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