Biden: “No, they didn’t. It was split. That, that wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.”
Stephanopoulos: “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.”
Biden’s recollection of what his military advisers told him is at odds with fresh reporting from The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Both news organizations reported in recent days that top military leaders counseled the president to leave a residual force of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Post reported: “Months before Biden unveiled his withdrawal decision, Gen. Austin ‘Scott’ Miller, then the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned that a rapid government collapse was not just possible but was the most likely result of a quick exit, according to one person familiar with his analysis.
“In weeks of intensive deliberations in Washington, Austin and Gen. Mark. A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, privately advised Biden against a full withdrawal, officials said. … Once the decision was made, Pentagon leaders, especially cautious after years of civil-military strains under Trump, pivoted to executing Biden’s plan. Concerned about the safety of military personnel, commanders felt the need to quickly pull out the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops, four officials said.”
According to the Journal: “The president’s top generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, urged Mr. Biden to keep a force of about 2,500 troops, the size he inherited, while seeking a peace agreement between warring Afghan factions, to help maintain stability. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who previously served as a military commander in the region, said a full withdrawal wouldn’t provide any insurance against instability.”
Biden: “Number one, as you know, the intelligence community did not say back in June or July that, in fact, this was gonna collapse like it did. Number one.”
Stephanopoulos: “They thought the Taliban would take over, but not this quickly?”
Biden: “But not this quickly. Not even close.”
Reports suggest that the intelligence community by July was issuing reports warning about the potential domino effect throughout Afghanistan should the United States withdraw its troops. Analysts seem to have gotten the “how” right in some respects, if not the “when.”
The New York Times reported that by July, “many intelligence reports grew more pessimistic, questioning whether any Afghan security forces would muster serious resistance and whether the government could hold on in Kabul, the capital.”
“Intelligence agencies predicted that should the Taliban seize cities, a cascading collapse could happen rapidly and the Afghan security forces were at high risk of falling apart,” the Times reported, adding that it was unclear whether other intelligence assessments around that time were more optimistic.
A senior U.S. official involved in White House deliberations, speaking anonymously to The Post, said that no senior U.S. leader predicted that a collapse of the Afghan state could come in August. “Generals did warn, however, that they were concerned that a collapse could occur before the end of the year, two officials said,” The Post reported.
Biden: “The idea that the Taliban would take over was premised on the notion that the — that somehow, the 300,000 troops we had trained and equipped was gonna just collapse, they were gonna give up. I don’t think anybody anticipated that.”
Ever since the president announced his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, he has emphasized how the Afghan “security forces,” or in this case “troops,” totaled more than 300,000. But as we found in a Three-Pinocchio fact check, this is an inflated total.
In a 2021 report, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) found that Afghanistan had an active force of 178,800; of these, 171,500 were in the army and 7,300 in the air force.
“Reports suggested that already high losses and high levels of desertion further increased in 2020,” the report said. “There was reported 22% personnel shortage in mid-2019, and there are problems in retaining key specialists including pilots and special-operations troops.”
IISS also noted that Afghanistan had 99,000 “paramilitary” forces, or members of the Afghan National Police. The police report to the Interior Ministry, not the Defense Ministry. They guard the border, staff security checkpoints and try to hold territory that the army has cleared of insurgents.
“Roughly 40% of the total [300,000 security forces] consisted of Afghan National Police (ANP) whose forces varied sharply in quality, were largely conventional police, and could not play an effective paramilitary role or properly hold even supposed secure areas,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote in a report published this week. He added, “Some fought bravely in the period before U.S. force cuts began, but most collapsed or deserted in the face of any serious Taliban action, and significant numbers deserted or changed sides when the Taliban took control over a given District.”
In its final report, issued this week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that the national police routinely engaged in torture and abuse, which further “alienated local Afghans and undermined the U.S. government’s overarching security goals for the country.”
By repeatedly using the 300,000 figure, the president is misleading Americans about the capabilities of the Afghan military.
Biden: “We don’t have military in Syria to make sure that we’re gonna be protected.”
Biden has been making the case that the United States does not need to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan to deter terrorist threats. As part of that argument, he points to Syria. Although the troop numbers for Afghanistan and Syria are not comparable, he was wrong to say the United States has no military presence in Syria.
“Roughly 900 U.S. troops, including a number of Green Berets, will remain in Syria to continue supporting and advising the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State — the same role they have played since the American-led intervention in 2014, according to a senior Biden administration official,” Politico reported, a total that was not expected to change.
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