US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Gen Kenneth McKenzie directly contradicted a claim from President Joe Biden about suggestions for a remainder force in Afghanistan during a hearing of the Senate Armed Forces Committee.
Gen McKenzie told senators on Tuesday that he had specifically recommended that the US keep a force of roughly 2,500 US service members in Afghanistan beyond the main withdrawal of American forces.
"I recommended we keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan,” said Gen McKenzie, a statement that was later echoed by Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The statements called into question Mr Biden’s assertion in an interview with ABC News in the days following the Kabul withdrawal that “no one said that” in regard to keeping additional troops in country.
“Your military advisors did not tell you, ‘No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that’?” asked ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in August.
“No one said that to me that I can recall,” the president responded.
Sen Dan Sullivan of Alaska grilled both Mr Milley and Mr McKenzie over whether Mr Biden had spoken falsely in the ABC News interview when he claimed that he never heard advice urging him to keep 2,500 troops or a similar footprint in Afghanistan.
“You do not have to cover for the President when he’s not telling the truth. Was that a false statement or not?”
“I’m not going to characterise a statement from the president of the United States,” Gen Milley responded, while Gen McKenzie responded that he had given his “view” of the situation.
Republicans opened up Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Armed Forces Committee with a slew of attacks aimed at Mr Biden, his advisers, as well as US Defence Department officials, for the chaotic pullout of US troops from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan government.
Sen James Inhofe, the Republican ranking member of the committee, used his opening statement to blame Mr Biden for making negotiations with terrorists mandatory even after praising the previous administration’s dealings with Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar.
"We went from 'we we will never negotiate with terrorists' to 'we must negotiate with terrorists,’” the senator said.
Mr Inhofe also criticised the Pentagon for a military strike in Kabul originally believed to have targeted Isis-K militants but was found to have killed an entire family of Afghan civilians, including seven children.
Other Republicans were equally brutal in their criticism. Sen Marsha Blackburn referred to the Biden administration’s management of the withdrawal as “botched and disgraceful”, while Sen Tom Cotton asked why military leaders did not resign when their advice was not followed.
Those last remarks elicited a harsh response from Gen Milley, who said, “my dad didn’t get to resign at Iwo Jima”. Mr Milley told Mr Cotton that the job of the joint chiefs was to provide advice, not to decide which orders to follow.
"It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken,” he said.
The GOP has been blistering in its criticism of the US pullout from Afghanistan following the final exit of US troops, with many arguing that the US should have left a small military footprint in the country; both parties have been highly critical of the intelligence failure that led to Mr Biden suggesting as recently as July that the Afghan government had the capability to stave off or even defeat the Taliban.
The White House has countered that no intelligence suggested that the country would fall as quickly as it did, and asserted that any remaining US presence in the country would have been forced into a new armed conflict with the Taliban, costing more American lives.