Testimony from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday was enlightening in several respects. The two defense officials may not have persuaded those who wanted to continue an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, but they certainly put President Biden’s decision-making in context.

Much of the media’s attention focused on Milley, who at the beginning of the hearing shattered the notion that he had acted outside the chain of command or usurped civilian control in the waning days of the Trump administration. His conversations with the Chinese to de-escalate any conflict were cleared with civilian officials beforehand, he said, and he debriefed them afterward. Milley, who acted deftly within the bounds of the Constitution to avoid disaster, is not deserving of blame; rather, the ones who need to explain themselves are the former president’s cowardly enablers, who to this day pretend the former president is fit for office.

The bulk of the hearing, however, focused on Afghanistan. Austin effectively conceded in his testimony that three presidents never acknowledged (or at least never appreciated) that the mission of the war — to create a viable Afghan government and military — failed spectacularly. Austin explained:

We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of the Doha agreement, that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight. We provided the Afghan military with equipment and aircraft and the skills to use them. Over the years, they often fought bravely. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers died. But in the end, we couldn’t provide them with the will to win. At least not all of them.

That’s as devastating a critique of the war’s promoters as any defense official has delivered.

Biden’s critics will have a hard time explaining why a limited force left indefinitely in Afghanistan would have been a viable alternative. There has been no evidence that the status quo was sustainable. Milley acknowledged, “The Taliban [in 2020] strengthened its positions around several provincial capitals in anticipation of the departure of foreign forces and, over this time period, enemy-initiated attacks increased by over 50 percent and were above previous seasonal norms.” He added, “The Taliban controlled approximately 78 districts in February of 2021. This rose to over 100 in mid-June and surpassed 200 by mid-July, with fighting occurring on the outskirts of 15 provincial capitals.”

The notion that the Taliban would have halted its advance if the United States kept a few thousand troops in the country defies logic. Indeed, Milley conceded, “On the first of September, we were going to go to war again with the Taliban. Of that, there was no doubt.”

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote in an op-ed earlier this month, “If Biden had reneged on this deal, there would be a ferocious response from the Taliban. Two thousand five hundred troops would have never been nearly enough to repel the reaction from a jilted Taliban."

The idea that the administration did not prepare for the collapse of the Afghan government was false as well. Both Miley and Austin described the advance planning in detail, including the pre-positioning of troops and rehearsing a noncombatant evacuation. Moreover, the Monday-morning quarterbacking that the administration should have retained Bagram air base appears to have been misplaced. Milley explained:

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The U.S. military could not secure both Bagram airfield and [Hamid Karzai International Airport] with the troops available. All together securing Bagram would have required approximately 5-6,000 additional troops assuming no indigenous partner force was available. These forces are in addition to those that would be required to secure Kabul and HKIA in the event of a [noncombatant evacuation operation]. As Gen. [Austin S.] Miller has previously testified, HKIA would always be the center of gravity of any NEO due to the population that would need to be evacuated was mostly in Kabul.
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Austin also explained, “[Retaining Bagram] would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away. That distance from Kabul also rendered Bagram of little value in the evacuation.”

Finally, the widespread declaration that the administration’s airlift was a “failure” was exaggerated and lacked context. Austin and Milley conceded there were a couple of days of chaos, but tens of thousands more Afghans were evacuated than thought possible. “We planned to evacuate between 70,000-80,000 people. They evacuated more than 124,000,” Austin said. He also noted, “At the height of this operation, an aircraft was taking off every 45 minutes. And not a single sortie was missed for maintenance, fuel, or logistical problems. It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in just 17 days.”

Critics who said the United States would not be able to evacuate anyone after the military left were wrong. The military was able to evacuate 6,000 Americans and, with subsequent extractions, has removed the vast majority of Americans who wanted out. (After months of warnings, assistance and advice, it is hard to think what more the administration could have done.)

With regard to the Afghans we failed to extract, the sad reality is that when a nation loses a war, it simply cannot get everyone whom it wants out. The expectation that we could have saved hundreds of thousands of Afghans from Taliban rule was never realistic. (Arguably, the president should have made that clear rather than make open-ended promises.)

President Biden's critics are left exasperated. How could the United States not have done better? Certainly, Milley, Austin and other officials should have known that Afghan forces and the civilian government were hollow. But even had they foreseen an immediate collapse, a mass evacuation on any timeline would have likely had the same result (i.e., a rush to the exits). For those who wanted an indefinite war, it is time to admit there was no way to preserve the status quo without loss of more American lives. For those who wanted a “clean” and swift end, it is time to acknowledge wars do not end that way.

Moreover, the military officials’ emphasis on the disastrous Doha deal negotiated with the Taliban under President Donald Trump was a proper corrective to the hypocritical blame Republicans heaped on Biden. My colleague Aaron Blake writes, “Both Austin and Milley cast the deal as largely a failure, particularly when the Afghan military — which the United States had tried to prop up for 20 years — quickly collapsed and allowed the Taliban to take control.”

In sum, the testimony went a long way toward confirming an uncomfortable truth: The 20-year war to create a viable Afghan state was a fruitless, misguided and arrogant undertaking. Biden finally decided not to sacrifice more troops and spend more money on an unwinnable venture. His error may have been in failing to prepare Americans for the ugly, heartbreaking reality of losing a war to no real effect. Those who cheered for the war would do well to engage in some soul-searching.