Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley on Tuesday reiterated concerns that political decisions made outside the Defense Department led to the chaos and violence of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, but also emphasized that no single mistake can be blamed for the failures.

“The outcome in Afghanistan was the result of many decisions from many years of war,” the retired Army general told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Like any complex phenomena, there was no single causal factor that determined the outcome.”

Milley and former Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command at the time of the withdrawal, appeared before the panel as part of ongoing congressional investigations related to the final days of the withdrawal, which included the deaths of 13 U.S. service members and hundreds of civilians after a suicide bombing at the Kabul International Airport.

Republican leaders of the committee said the hearing was designed to provide still-unanswered questions from the families of those fallen troops — some of whom attended Tuesday’s hearing — and to determine how mistakes were made.

“The president and his administration refuse to acknowledge their failures,” said committee chairman Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas. “We launched this investigation to make sure the mistakes made in Afghanistan never, ever happen again.”

But Democrats dismissed the hearing — the latest in a long series of the issue over the last three years — as another attempt by congressional Republicans to score political points ahead of this year’s elections, noting that the chaotic withdrawal was preceded by mistakes from multiple presidential administrations.

“If we’re taking a serious look at this, you can’t just take a peek at one little segment of it and say, ‘This is the reason everything happened,’” said committee ranking member Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. “You have to look at all of it.”

That includes former President Donald Trump’s agreement with Taliban leaders in early 2020 to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, an arrangement that Democrats argue limited President Joe Biden’s options in the country.

Milley and McKenzie both acknowledged that, but also noted that military leaders recommended keeping some military force in the country beyond the August 2021 deadline but were overruled by administration officials.

They also noted that the move to pull civilian workers and allies out of the country came later than they requested, leading to more complications.

“This was not a military decision,” McKenzie said.

But neither man condemned Biden for his political calls, saying that military recommendations are just part of the decision process for the commander-in-chief. They also testified that if U.S. troops were not removed from the country, it likely would have led to renewed fighting with Taliban forces.

Much of the testimony from Milley and McKenzie was repeated from previous appearances before congressional committees. But Tuesday’s hearing marked the first time Milley testified on the issue as a civilian, not a Defense Department official.

He said the move was important to provide as much information as possible to the families of the fallen troops and the service members who served alongside them.

“To all veterans of Afghanistan, hold your heads high,” he said. “Each of you did what the country asked of you under extreme circumstances.”

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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