After the nation’s top military advisers told a Senate panel that they advised President Biden to maintain a 2,500 troop level in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki appeared to confirm that he received that recommendation but decided to ignore it and withdraw anyway.
That narrative, as well as the ones portrayed by two top generals and Biden’s defense secretary, fly in the face of what Biden told ABC News‘ George Stephanopoulos last month, when he flat-out denied that his military advisers counseled him to keep a force of 2,500 in the war-torn country.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that they advised the president to maintain the small troop presence in Afghanistan.
In her defense of the president, Psaki tried to split hairs — at one point over the word “split.”
“Let me give you a couple of specifics from the actual transcript because I know it’s been short handed a bit,” she said.
“The question asked by George Stephanopoulos was, ‘Your military advisers warned against withdrawing on this timeline, they wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops.’ The president said, ‘No they didn’t. It was split. That that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true. It was split,’” Psaki said, reading back a portion of the transcript of the interview.
She said that’s a “pretty key part of the phrasing.”
Later in the briefing she was asked what the significance of Biden’s use of the word “split” was in that instance.
“It might be helpful if you could just tell us, what do you mean by ‘split’? What were they split between?
Psaki shot back, “What’s confusing about that?”
“Well, it’s either one, they were advising that 2,500 troops should remain on the ground, or two, that someone was advising that it should be zero,” the reporter said.
“I think it’s important for the American people to know that these conversations don’t happen in black and white, or like you’re in the middle of a movie. These conversations are about a range of options, about what the, the risk assessments are about every decision,” Psaki deflected.
“And of course, there are individuals who come forward with a range of recommendations on what the right path forward looks like. I’m not going to detail those from here, the private conversations and advice to the President of the United States, ultimately, regardless of the advice. It’s his decision. He’s the Commander in Chief, he’s the president, he makes decisions about then what’s in the national interest and he believed we should end the war,” Psaki said.
Psaki later returned to the interview and Stephanopoulos’ question for Biden: “‘Your military advisers did not tell you, quote, 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.’”
She said Biden answered, “‘No, no one said that to me that I can recall.’”
Psaki said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Milley and McKenzie “made clear … if you stay there at a force posture of 2,500 certainly you’d be in a fight with the Taliban, and you’d have to reinforce.”
She said the military advisers presented Biden with a range of viewpoints “as would be expected as he asked for a clear-eyed, didn’t ask them not to sugarcoat, what their recommendations were.”
She also said it was “clear to him” that the recommendations would not last long and that there would be a need to boost troop numbers which could lead to fighting with the Taliban and an increase in casualties.
“The president was just not willing to make that decision. He didn’t think it was in the interest of the American people or the interests of our troops,” Psaki said.
Later she was asked if the military advisers were OK with pulling out the troops.
“That’s not what I said. What I said was … and I think we should not dumb this down for anybody here, we’re talking about the initial phase post May 1, we’re not talking about long-term recommendations,” she said.
“There was no one who said, ‘five years from now we could have 2,500 troops and that would be sustainable,’” she said.
Psaki said there were also risks associated with increasing the troop presence.
“We now know to absolutely have been the reality, given it required 6,000 troops to just protect the airport – something we now know,” she said.
At the Senate hearing Milley was reluctant to go into detail about his recommendations.
But he said: “I won’t share my personal recommendation to the president, but I will give you my honest opinion and my honest opinion and view shaped my recommendation. And I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan,” he said.
McKenzie also said that he warned Biden of the consequences of drawing down the troop number below 2,500.
“I stated consistently that my position was if you go below 2,500, you’re going to look at a collapse of the Afghan military. I did not foresee it to be days. I thought it would take months,” he told Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).
Austin confirmed that Biden received the recommendations from his military advisers about the troop levels
“Their input was received by the president and considered by the president for sure,” he said. “In terms of what they specifically recommended, senator, they just, as they just said, they’re not going to provide what they recommended in confidence.”