Top U.S. military officers say that the plan to draw U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan down to zero had a major impact on morale among Afghan troops, who had grown to depend on U.S. assistance for everything from intelligence and air support to training and equipment maintenance.
General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in testimony before a House committee on September 29 that he had believed "for quite a while" that if the United States reduced the number of its military advisers in Afghanistan below 2,500, the Kabul government would inevitably collapse "and that the military would follow."
McKenzie said once the U.S. troop presence was pushed below 2,500 as part of President Joe Biden's decision in April to complete a total withdrawal, the unraveling of the U.S.-backed Afghan government accelerated.
Biden set August 31 as the date for the complete pullout of U.S. forces, following through on an agreement reached in 2020 in Doha, Qatar, with the Taliban by then-President Donald Trump that promised the withdrawal.
"The signing of the Doha agreement had a really pernicious effect on the government of Afghanistan and on its military -- psychological more than anything else, but we set a date-certain for when we were going to leave and when they could expect all assistance to end," McKenzie told the House committee.
He described the troop reduction ordered by Biden as "the other nail in the coffin" for the 20-year war effort because it left the U.S. military blind to conditions inside the Afghan National Army.
McKenzie, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified for 4 1/2 hours on September 29 before the House Armed Services Committee. That followed nearly a day of testimony on September 28 before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The hearings marked the start of what is likely to be an extended congressional review of the U.S. failures in Afghanistan.
Republicans have accused Biden of lying about the military commanders' recommendations and exaggerating the United States' ability to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for militant groups like Al-Qaeda.
In an August television interview, Biden denied his commanders had recommended keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. He said then: "No. No one said that to me that I can recall."
But McKenzie told the House committee he had warned that a complete withdrawal would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military and the Afghan government, and Milley told the Senate committee that it had been his personal opinion that at least 2,500 U.S. troops were needed to guard against a collapse of the Kabul government and a return to Taliban rule.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden had received "split" advice about what to do in Afghanistan.
"Ultimately, it's up to the commander in chief to make a decision," Psaki said. "He made a decision that it was time to end a 20-year war."
Representative Mike Rogers (Republican-Michigan), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, called the withdrawal an "unmitigated disaster."
"It will go down in history as one of the greatest failures of American leadership," Rogers said.