WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told a House committee on Wednesday that he had not supported keeping American troops in Afghanistan, for the first time publicly discussing the advice he had given before President Biden announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country.
But Mr. Austin included a key word: “I did not support staying in Afghanistan forever.”
The word “forever,” officials said, sheds light on an apparent contradiction that has bedeviled the Biden administration since the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview in August that his military advisers were “split,” despite Defense Department recommendations over the years to keep troops in Afghanistan.
On the second day of congressional hearings on Afghanistan, the House Armed Services Committee asked Mr. Austin; Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, many of the same questions that had been raised by a Senate panel on Tuesday.
This time, though, the more rough-and-tumble, egalitarian nature of the House meant there were even more theatrics, more calls for General Milley’s resignation, and more condemnations from Republicans, including one who called the final days of the U.S. withdrawal “an extraordinary disaster.”
“It will go down in history as one of the greatest failures of American leadership,” said Representative Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the committee’s top Republican. “We are here today to get answers on how the hell this happened.”
Like their Senate counterparts the day before, the House Democrats were more muted in their critiques. “The president made the right call” to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, said Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the committee’s chairman, who also noted that the evacuation had been “rushed.”
After Generals Milley and McKenzie acknowledged on Tuesday that they had advised Mr. Biden not to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, Mr. Austin was left to account for the president’s description of the recommendations.
Administration officials have long said that Mr. Austin was in agreement with General Milley in advising the president not to withdraw all troops, and that the defense secretary even told Mr. Biden during one meeting that “we’ve seen this movie before,” in a reference to what happened in Iraq in 2014 after the Islamic State rolled through the country after the American withdrawal there.
With Republicans focusing on this discrepancy, Mr. Austin tried to show that his boss did not misrepresent the Pentagon’s views during the interview with Mr. Stephanopoulos, who told the president that his military advisers had “wanted you to keep about 2,500 troops” in Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden replied: “No, they didn’t. It was split. That wasn’t true. That wasn’t true.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Austin told the committee, “I support the president’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan.” He added, “I did not support staying in Afghanistan forever.”
Mr. Austin continued to decline to describe his specific advice to the president, but an American official familiar with the secretary’s thinking said that Mr. Austin and General Milley both wanted to keep 2,500 to 4,500 troops on the ground, withdrawing them on a “conditions” basis. Those conditions, the official said, included the Taliban making good on promises to renounce Al Qaeda and progress in negotiations with the Afghan government.
General McKenzie, as he told both Senate and House members over the two days, said he believed that withdrawing forces would “lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces, and, eventually, the Afghan government.”
Asked why American commanders and intelligence officials failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government earlier this summer, General Milley said the steady withdrawal of tactical advisers in recent years had robbed Pentagon officials of the ability to gauge the Afghans’ will to fight.
“You start missing that fingertip touch for that intangible,” he said. “We can count the trucks and the guns and the units and all that. But we can’t measure a human heart from a machine. You’ve got to be there to do that.”
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Asked whether Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw caused what General Milley had described as a “strategic failure,” the general took a longer view.
“This is a 20-year war,” General Milley said. “It wasn’t lost in the last 20 days or even 20 months for that matter. There is a cumulative effect from a series of decisions that go way back.”
For the second consecutive day, lawmakers from both parties asked the Pentagon officials if the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan would energize Al Qaeda or the Islamic State in the country.
“We’ll put a shot of adrenaline into their arm,” General Milley said, later adding, “It’s a big morale boost.”
General Milley said the terrorist threat to the United States is less than it had been the day before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but that Al Qaeda and Islamic State cells could rebuild their networks in six to 36 months.
Mr. Austin said the Pentagon and spy agencies would be watching closely to determine whether senior terrorist leaders reestablish training camps in Afghanistan and regain the ability to move their supporters across international borders. “It will take time to develop a true intelligence picture,” he said.
Mr. Biden has vowed to prevent Al Qaeda and the Islamic State from rebuilding to the point where they could attack Americans or the United States. Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that monitoring and striking terrorist targets from a long distance would be very difficult but not impossible.
Some Republicans, in particular, scoffed at that assessment. “That is a fiction,” said Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who served in Afghanistan as an Army Green Beret.