Pentagon brass play defense on Capitol Hill amid calls for their heads

Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin and Gens. Mark Milley and Frank McKenzie spent roughly six hours in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday tackling questions about their recommendations to President Joe Biden, the Americans left behind in Afghanistan, and the terror threat moving forward.

Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, both revealed they believed the best strategy was to keep about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, making it unclear which military officials, if any, actually supported Biden's plan for a complete withdrawal. The acknowledgment from the military officials prompted a defense from the White House.

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Many Republican lawmakers, in particular, collectively scrutinized military leaders and the Biden administration for the way the withdrawal occurred and the evacuation effort β€” in which the U.S. transported more than 120,000 people who would be at-risk under the Taliban government out of the country β€” that left Americans and Special Immigrant Visa holders behind.

"It was a logistical success but a strategic failure," Milley said of the evacuation effort.

GOP Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Josh Hawley called for Austin and Milley's resignations, respectively.

"Secretary Austin, I think you should resign. I think this mission was a catastrophe. I think there's no other way to say it, and there has to be accountability. I respectfully submit it should begin with you," the Missouri senator said, while the Tennessee senator argued: "Nobody has submitted their resignation. And we've got thousands of people watching this hearing today that are looking at you all and saying, β€˜I can't believe they're sitting there and not answering the questions and are trying to punt.'"

Hawley also got heated when Austin claimed the United States didn't leave Americans behind.

"They're stuck behind enemy lines," he said. "So please don't tell me that we're not leaving Americans behind. You left them behind. Joe Biden left them behind, and frankly, it was a disgrace."

Another frequent topic during the hearing was Milley's willingness to speak to various reporters with book deals. He acknowledged speaking with Bob Woodward, Carol Leonnig, Phil Rucker, and Michael Bender for their books that included explosive reporting regarding Milley and former President Donald Trump.

"Milley made himself a hero in the media instead of a hero to the men in his command," said Blackburn, whose line of inquiry prompted the admission.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's comments to his Chinese counterpart, first reported by Woodward and Bob Costa in their book, Peril, were also brought up repeatedly. Critics have claimed that Milley usurped Trump's authority because he promised to warn the Chinese of an impending attack.

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"It seems to me that you put a high priority on making sure that you were favorably portrayed by the D.C. press corps," Hawley said about Milley's comments to reporters. "But at the same time, we had a rapidly deteriorating, frankly, disastrous situation in Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of 13 soldiers, including one from my home state, hundreds of civilians, and hundreds of Americans left behind. And in my view, that mission can't be called a success in any way, shape or form, logistical or otherwise."

The three Pentagon officials will be on Capitol Hill again on Wednesday to testify in front of the House Armed Services Committee.

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