The Taliban remains dangerous and is harboring al-Qaida, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley told the panel that when President Joe Biden was inaugurated in January the situation in Afghanistan was at a stalemate with roughly 10,000 U.S. and NATO troops in the nation.
The Trump administration had negotiated the Doha Agreement with the Taliban in Qatar in February 2020. Under the agreement, the United States would begin to withdraw its forces contingent upon the Taliban meeting certain conditions. This would lead to a political agreement between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. "There were seven conditions [in the Doha Agreement] applicable to the Taliban and eight conditions applicable to the United States," Milley said. "While the Taliban did not attack U.S. forces, which was one of the conditions, it failed to fully honor any, any other condition under the Doha Agreement.
"And perhaps most importantly for U.S. national security, the Taliban has never renounced al-Qaida, or broke its affiliation with them."
Milley said the United States adhered to every condition.
In the fall of 2020, Milley's analysis of the situation in Afghanistan was that an accelerated withdrawal would risk "losing the substantial gains made in Afghanistan, damaging U.S. worldwide credibility, and could precipitate a general collapse of the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] and the Afghan government, resulting in a complete Taliban takeover or general Civil War," he told the Senate panel. "That was a year ago."
Then-President Donald J. Trump ordered an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan to end by Jan. 15, 2021. That order was subsequently rescinded by Trump before leaving office, and one of the Biden Administration's first duties was to examine the situation in the country and recommend a course moving forward.
Milley participated in a rigorous interagency review of the situation in Afghanistan in February, March and April. The advice and recommendations were given serious consideration by the administration, he said. "We provided a broad range of options and our assessment of their potential outcomes," he said. "On 14 April, President [Biden] announced his decision, and the U.S. military received a change of mission to retrograde all U.S. military forces."
The United States would keep a small unit to protect the embassy in Kabul and ensure access to the airport.
"It is clear, it is obvious, that the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted, with the Taliban now in power in Kabul," Milley said. "Although the [non-combatant evacuation operation] was unprecedented as the largest air evacuation in history evacuating 124,000 people, it came at an incredible cost of 11 Marines, one soldier and a Navy corpsman. Those 13 gave their lives so that people they never met, will have an opportunity to live in freedom. And we must remember that the Taliban was — and remains — a terrorist organization. And they still have not broken ties with al-Qaida."
Milley said he doesn't know if the group can consolidate power in the country or if the country will further fracture into civil war. "But we must continue to protect the United States of America and its people from terrorist attacks coming from Afghanistan. A reconstituted al-Qaida or [Islamic State] with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility."