Former Minot AFB commander reflects on Afghanistan withdrawal hearings
Three key military leaders testified this week before the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate Armed Services Committees’ hearings on the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central command; and retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, secretary of defense gave testimony.
Retired Lt. Gen. Richard “Dick” Newton III, a former base commander and 5th Bomb Wing commander at Minot Air Force Base who has held other high-level Air Force positions, shed light on these hearings during an interview with The Minot Daily News on Thursday.
Now of Jupiter Beach, Fla., Newton was assistant vice chief, U.S. Air Force, in Washington, D.C., prior to his retirement and has testified at congressional hearings. Now in the private financial sector, Newton is a frequent national security contributor to the national media. He and his wife, Jody, and their daughters, Addy and Elizabeth, were at Minot AFB 20 years ago.
Newton said the testimony this week of Milley, coming on the heels of the debacle of the withdrawal in Afghanistan, was “very consequential testimony, certainly to the accusations we’ve seen in the media regarding General Milley and his phone conversations with his Chinese peers both on 30 October and on 8 January.” Newton said he thinks Milley needed to assuage the American people “in terms of some of the what I would term the outlandish reports that came out of the media regarding Bob Woodward’s book ‘Peril.’
“I think he did a very good job of answering the members’ — the senators and U.S. representatives — questions in both committees. As you saw, there was quite a political show of some kind,” Newton said.
“The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is and should be, and in his view is, apolitical, just like I was when I was serving at the senior ranks — the senior jobs — in the U.S. military,” Newton went on.
“Secondly, he is not in the chain of command. He explained the role of the chairman clearly to the American people both in media but in this particular Senate testimony and House testimony, I think he did a great job in that,” Newton said.
Newton said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is, by law, to provide the best military advice to the president and the National Security Council.
The National Security Council is made up of the vice president, secretary of state, secretary of treasury, director of national intelligence and others.
“But once operations are decided or decisions are made by the president, they’re not made via the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They really go from the president and secretary of defense to the combatant commanders. It may be through the chairman but again, he in this case is not in the chain of command. Therefore, some of the misconceptions that emanated out of Bob Woodward’s book, ‘Peril’ and so forth, pandered him as if he was putting himself in the chain of command in an illegal or unauthorized manner. I don’t believe that ever happened; nonetheless there were a lot of misperceptions that he created himself, but I believe he addressed those. He addressed those for me in a way that I’m satisfied with that,” Newton said.
During the hearings the generals were asked if they were going to resign. They said they were not going to resign.
Newton said the president was provided the best military advice as was heard in the testimony of Milley and Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command. But he said it needs to be determined who is going to be held accountable for the disaster of the withdrawal.
Newton said that certainly the president is held accountable because Milley and McKenzie related they advocated for a force of at least 2,500 troops to cover the U.S. withdrawal.
“Maybe what I would have asked for in providing advice to the president would have been to keep Bagram Air Base open until we get the last American out,” he said.
Newton said what President Biden decided to do was to base everything on a date certain and that all Americans would leave, including U.S. military, intelligence, state department, and then leave by that Aug. 30 date.
“My point is that was a strategic mistake as General Milley pointed out and rightly so. That was on the president and therefore someone needs to be held accountable,” Newton said.
He said the president will be held accountable in the next election.
“But who in his close circle of political appointees and advisers need to be held accountable?” Newton said. “If we’re now looking at who should be held accountable and therefore in terms of resignation, I would start first with the national security adviser, with the secretary of state and perhaps the secretary of defense.”
He pointed out that several hundred Americans were left behind enemy territory in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as well as thousands of those who stood by the U.S. — those with special immigrant visas, those who worked in the U.S. Embassy, those who worked as interpreters and those who provided other services and capabilities that the U.S. couldn’t have found anywhere else other than partnering with Afghan both military and civilians who were supporting the U.S. in its operations there.
“So there needs to be an accountability for that,” he said.
Newton said he admires Milley that in his testimony he called the overall withdrawal a strategic failure on the part of the United States. He said Milley has an obligation to the president in his role as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (of) providing his best military advice, an obligation to the Congress — the Senate and House, which he provided his best military advice — and he also has an obligation to the American people “not to a political party, not to an agenda but really what emanates from him in terms of him providing the best military advice. I believe that came through loud and clear in both his House and Senate testimony.”
“If there is a major lesson learned here that is learned over and over again is if you are on active duty as a senior general officer in the U.S. military, I still want you engaged in the media during press conferences, during one-on-one media interviews on the record. But be very cautious and very careful if you engage with the likes of Bob Woodward and putting together this book, ‘Peril’ and so forth because it has caused much misperception in terms of what’s now out there in the minds of the American people,” Newton said. He said there were misperceptions out there that Milley went outside of the chain of command, that he was doing things that were undermining the president of the United States, Donald Trump. “That is a major lesson learned but it is not a new lesson learned,” Newton said.
“I want to continue to encourage our senior military leaders in their specific roles and responsibilities to have access to the American people through the media but when you’re doing books and things like that it’s inappropriate and can lead to lots of controversies,” he added.
In regard to U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Stu Scheller, who was fired after posting an Aug. 27 viral video demanding accountability from military leaders for the failures in Afghanistan and is in pre-trial confinement while awaiting a preliminary hearing, Newton said, “The issue is good order and discipline of the U.S. military and what’s very important is really establishing, maintaining and sustaining that clear chain of command. He went outside that chain of command and called out the chain of command in his personal view or whatever his comments eluded to that he didn’t agree with.”
Newton said a sound, effective chain of command is absolutely essential.
“I believe he went way out of bounds. He is schooled on this; he understands this clearly. It’s not as though he was surprised by his comments, in my view, because they were clearly outside the chain of command and can do as much harm to national security at his level as anything,” Newton said.
“If you’re a lieutenant colonel and you publicly articulate that you have lost confidence in the chain of command, what does that mean to Capt. Smith or Sgt. Smith or Airman Smith in terms of following the chain of command? That is totally ineffective and it puts the mission in peril but also potentially puts lives in peril. We can’t tolerate that. The swift, clear, public actions of the United States Marine Corps chain of command, I thought, were very appropriate and effective as it was needed to be done,” Newton said.
“This is the United States of America. This is not a Third World country military junta or militia we’re talking about. We are the world’s greatest military, the world’s number one superpower. We have to have disciplined military, and the discipline is how we are effectively organized, how we’re trained, how we’re equipped and how we’re led by our senior leaders. That’s what we should be doing. That’s what senior leaders need to be doing,” Newton said.
He said a way to look at this is to think in terms of how close Minot Air Force Base is to Minot and the surrounding area communities.
“If the citizens of Minot, North Dakota, became aware of an officer out at Minot Air Force Base that called to either disgrace or to question the validity of the chain of command at Minot Air Force Base, what would that do to the perception of the citizens of Minot, North Dakota, in terms of the health and welfare and effectiveness of the chain of command who are responsible for an extraordinary and significant national security mission at Minot Air Force Base,” Newton said.
“Again, the chain of command needs to be upheld and the effectiveness of the chain of command cannot be eroded or lost — absolutely essential in order to fight and win our nation’s wars,” Newton said.