WASHINGTON - The nation's top military leaders will face lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday in a hearing expected to touch on some of the most contentious national security challenges facing the country.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
The trio is expected to be grilled on their handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, competition with rivals like China, and, in Milley's case, reports that he may have circumvented his chain of command in sending reassurances to his Chinese counterpart.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressed frustration and outrage at the collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban and later botched U.S. efforts at counterterrorism in the country.
GOP lawmakers are also likely to echo recent critiques that the top brass should be fired for their overall performance. President Joe Biden says he remains confident in his national security team, while most Democratic critics have stopped short of calling for the leaders to be kicked from office.
The hearing is going on now. Watch here for updates out of the session.
McKenzie recommended 2,500 troops remain in Afghanistan
Ranking member Sen. Inhofe, R-Okla., asked Gen. Kenneth McKenzie if he agreed with former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. Scott Miller's recommendations to President Joe Biden to leave a few thousand troops in Afghanistan.
"I recommended that we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. And I also recommended earlier in the fall of 2020 that we will maintain 4,500. At that time, those are my personal views." McKenzie said.
"I also have a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces, and eventually the Afghan government."
Milley agreed with the recommendation of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
When Inhofe asked if Biden heard the recommendations, McKenzie said he was present during the discussions and was "confident that the president heard all the recommendations and listened to him very thoughtfully."
- Mabinty Quarshie
Milley explains calls with Chinese, said his job was to 'deescalate'
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Gen. Mark Milley, the highest-ranking officer in the military, defended himself against personal accusations that he'd acted improperly in calls with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People's Liberation Army.
Milley largely confirmed the account in a recent book by Washington Post reporters that he'd spoken with Li to reassure him that the U.S. would not launch a nuclear strike against Beijing.
More: Trump, Republicans call Gen. Mark Milley 'treasonous' for calls with China
Milley said the calls were "generated by concerning intelligence that caused us to believe the Chinese were anticipating an attack by the United States" and he was told to diffuse the concerns.
He said the calls were in full communication with the Trump administration's Defense Department and that he "routinely calls" his Chinese counterparts, adding that such calls are "critical for the security of the United States" and "to prevent war with great powers."
"My loyalty to this nation, its people and the Constitution of the United States has not changed," Milley said.
"I am certain that that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese," he said. "My task at that time was to deescalate."
"By law, I am not in the chain of command and I know that," Milley said. "But I am in the chain of communication.
"I firmly believe civilian control of the military is a bedrock principle of the republic."
- Matthew Brown
Milley addresses Afghanistan collapse
Milley defended the military's operations during the fall of Kabul and subsequent U.S. evacuation while also explaining his own conduct in calls with his Chinese counterparts in 2020.
"We provided a broad range of options," to President Joe Biden, Milley said, explaining how the military shifted its mission to drawing down
"It is clear, it is obvious the war in Afghanistan did not end in the terms we wanted with the Taliban now in power in Kabul," the general conceded, adding that "It came at an incredible cost of 11 marines, one soldier, and a navy foreman."
Milley was resolute that the military continues to see the Taliban as an adversary and is vigilant to threats they pose to U.S. national security now that they have assumed power in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with Al Qaida," Milley said. "I have no illusions about who we're dealing with."
He was, however, confident that the U.S. could continue "over the horizon" counterterrorism operations without a permanent presence in the country, a sentiment shared by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who testified before him.
"That mission will be much harder now, but not impossible, and we will continue to protect the American people," Milley said.
"Strategic decisions have strategic consequences," Milley said of the lessons to be learned from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. He specifically noted that the military will focus on better understanding its failed efforts to train and develop the Afghan military.
"Every soldier, sailor, airman and marine who served there for twenty years protected our country from attack from terrorists," Milley also said, insistent that U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was not futile.
- Matthew Brown
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin: U.S. still working on evacuating Americans
In his opening statement, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is "still working to get Americans out who wish to leave."
He acknowledged that "we did not get out all of our Afghan allies enrolled in the Special Immigrant Visa program" and that "non-combatant evacuations remain among the most challenging military operations, even in the best of circumstances."
Austin touted the troops who were on the ground and were able to quickly evacuate Americans and Afghan allies because of preplanning. U.S. forces were able to evacuate more than 124,000 people. On average, they were able to evacuate 7,000 people per day, according to Austin.
Austin also admitted that the U.S. was not prepared for the swift takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
"The fact that the Afghan army we and our partners trained simply melted away - in many cases without firing a shot - took us all by surprise," Austin said. "It would be dishonest to claim otherwise."
- Mabinty Quarshie
Milley defends conversation with Chinese counterpart
One line of questioning that the chair of the Joint Chiefs is sure to face involves calls to his Chinese counterpart in the final stormy months of Donald Trump's presidency. Gen. Mark Milley said earlier this month that they were "perfectly within the duties and responsibilities" of his job.
In his first public comments on the conversations, Milley said on Sept. 17 such calls are "routine" and were done "to reassure both allies and adversaries in this case in order to ensure strategic stability."
Descriptions of the calls made last October and in January were first aired in excerpts from the book "Peril" by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. The book says Milley told Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People's Liberation Army that he assured Li that the United States was not going to suddenly go to war with or attack China.
- Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pentagon hearing live updates: Milley explains call with Chinese