Former acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller--also an Afghanistan vet and retired Greed Beret--talks to Military Times' Howard Altman about Afghanistan

Christopher C. Miller, then-President Donald Trump’s surprise pick to replace fired Mark Esper and serve as acting defense secretary, has a personal stake in the outcome of events in Afghanistan. As an officer with the 5th Special Forces Group, he was one of the first troops into Afghanistan after 9/11, and he fought with and trained Afghan forces. Miller, a retired colonel, was working on plans to leave Afghanistan by May before the election of Joe Biden. In this Aug. 18 interview with Military Times, Miller talks about his reaction to the chaos unfolding in Kabul. how the decisions to bring the war in Afghanistan have played out, his impressions of Trump, how the U.S. might prevent al-Qaida from re-establishing a presence there, why Afghan National Security Forces were unable to defend their territory, and what he might have done differently.

Some questions and responses have been edited for brevity.

MT: Chris, as a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan, who fought there and helped train Afghans, what was it like to watch the fall of Afghanistan and the unfolding chaos in Kabul?

CM: It’s heartbreaking. I spent last Friday weeping all day long, because I was just so heartbroken. And then I just kind of got angry after that because I think I was going through the process of mourning. And now with what’s going on, it seems like the United States military has finally established some capabilities there. But it seems so preventable. And as a military person that understands military operations and planning and how we do these things. it really bothered me a great deal. What went wrong? I don’t know. I mean, it’s easy for me to sit here and Monday morning quarterback, and I don’t want to do that, because everybody’s doing that and all the shows, pointing fingers and whatnot. I don’t know, I wasn’t involved in those conversations. I wasn’t in those rooms, where the president and his leadership team made those decisions. I heard the president speak and you have to give them respect as he’s the president of the United States. And we all want this to turn out as well as it can. But you just can’t help but think as a former military person, as former secretary of defense … you can’t help but wonder what was going on that we mishandled this so dramatically.

MT: What made you so angry?

CM: I felt so much of this could have been prevented. With a little diligence and planning. That’s probably the most powerful part of our military is logistics and planning ability, and the ability to get any place in the world. So, I had questions and I still have questions, but the team that’s in there now, they just need our support. And I don’t want to be finger -pointing nerd second guessing or chicken-lipping them at this time. What’s concerning to me, though, is … it all seemed to start to really hit Sunday. Of course, that’s the day where the Taliban entered Kabul, with people that are stuck in bed-down locations and are in a bad way, asking for assistance. It seems like things are coming together now. But at the time, I couldn’t help wonder if we couldn’t have predicted that was going to happen. We’d been there for 20 years. Obviously, we had all the intelligence we needed there. To use the horrible Rumsfeld phrases about known unknowns and unknown unknowns, this was not an unknown unknown. This was a known known, we knew what was going to happen. Certainly, after 20 years on the ground, we had all the information we needed. And somehow it wasn’t. I want to know, I really want to know what the decision=making process was and why we didn’t take different actions and put in place different plans. So, that’s kind of where I am.

MT: What would you have done?

CM: It’s easy for me to say what I would have done. It’s not relevant. I thought we very much had a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in an orderly, deliberate process. Now, why that wasn’t executed by this administration is beyond my knowledge at this time. I don’t know why that is.

MT: Have you been in touch with people who are stuck in in Kabul, maybe former Afghan security forces, Afghan interpreters?

CT: Yes

MT: What’s that been like?

CM: It’s so hard. In one weird way. I was talking to a colleague of mine that I’d grown up with and who just left a very high-level position in the military, and he replied, ‘I feel like I have a mission. For the first time, I’m just not fighting the bureaucracy or trying to protect my people, I actually feel like I’m trying to do something worthwhile and relevant.’ So, that’s it. You’re sitting there at 1:30 in the morning, on Sunday night, Monday morning, just absolutely exhausted. But you couldn’t help but think, I might be exhausted here, but I can’t imagine what those folks are going through. So, you’re like, I’m going to go a little bit further, I’m going to try a little bit more. So, in a weird sort of way, it felt like you had a mission again, but you were also just heartbroken that it all played out this way, where these people were put in such risk and without any deliberation, it seems, obviously.

MT: In your initial message to troops in November, 2020, you wrote that ‘This war isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.’ Did we see the fight through to the finish?

CM: I thought there was a different way to end our operations in Afghanistan. I do firmly believe that. We have to remember, defeat is a very specific, very specific definition in the military. And I had to look this up. Defeat is not a permanent state. Defeat could be a temporary state. I felt strongly at the time that we had defeated al-Qaida, I still think they’re defeated. Now the question is, can we maintain pressure on them to deny them the ability to mass and train and equip and plan and execute follow-on attacks that could change our way of life? I strongly felt that we had defeated al-Qaida. We had not defeated the Taliban. We were absolutely in a stalemate at the time. I felt that in the administration that I represented — the Trump administration — I felt we had a good plan for how we were going to wind this thing down. You know, the idea was, we would force some sort of coalition interim government and use traditional Afghan processes and governmental structures — the Loya Jirga. And much like happened after the Bonn accords in 2001, 2002, of course, was the Loya Jirga. There was a way that we could have had an Afghan solution. Now the counter argument is [Ashraf] Ghani, the president wouldn’t have allowed that. I felt we still had leverage over the process. And I don’t know why we gave that leverage up. I wasn’t a part of the discussions after 12:01 a.m. on the 20th of January 2021.

MT: Do you think the over-the-horizon approach being suggested by the Pentagon now of being able to provide some level of security from afar to prevent groups like al-Qaida from re-establishing themselves is feasible?

CM: Absolutely. After Desert One in 1980, when we failed to rescue our hostages that were being held in Tehran, we’ve created the most remarkable counterterrorism organization in the world. It can go any place in the world in 24 hours or less and protect Americans or strike back when needed. We know how to do this. That’s not the question. It’s the will to do it. And so yes, we can absolutely prevent al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that have an international inclination or an international reach from massing, we can do that.

MT: In December 2020, you met with Ghani and Afghan officials. What was your sense, then, about their ability to defend their own country?

CM: President Ghani was enormously gracious and so was his vice president. He recognized the sacrifice of so many Americans and also cautioned that the Taliban were a great threat. We all knew that. It wasn’t anything I didn’t know. We didn’t talk specifically about the durability of the Afghan National Security Forces. I’d been there long enough and I knew the challenges there and I’d worked with surrogate forces. Oftentimes, in the past, there were methodologies and ways of using special operations forces or paramilitary forces, to provide capabilities to the Afghan National Security Forces. Specifically to call in fires, close air support, sustainment assets. So, we know how to do this. We’ve done it before. … I’d argue we’re doing it in Syria very effectively. Right now. I believe the strategy that was used in the operational plan that was used to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was very effective. I know we could have done something of the same sort with the Afghan National Security Forces.

MT: What was your sense of their capabilities? Did you get any sense that something like what we’ve seen in the last seven days would happen?

CM: I think any intelligence assessment analysis would recognize that the Afghan National Security Forces have great heroism and fighting ability. They needed some stiffening and some support from very low-key, small … American and allied support that probably would have given them the confidence to continue to fight. I have a lot of empathy for the young Afghan soldier in an outlying province … to see that the Taliban had moved in and recognizing that you didn’t have any support. I think it would be obvious and based on your tradition of warfighting, that probably you’re going to not continue to fight at that point.

MT: Do you think the U.S. announcing the withdrawal was the final straw?

CM: I have no idea. But I think we had all the information we needed about the tradition of Afghan warfighting and how they conduct combat. And it would be it was very clear to me that without some sort of support the Afghan National Security Forces … would be likely faced with significant resistance to not continue to fight.

MT: What advice did you give President Trump about how to proceed in Afghanistan? And how did he take that?

CM: We didn’t talk specifically about tactics or force structure or force capabilities. He agreed to — I think we were at 5,800 [U.S. troops}, then you had probably another 1,000 … people that were temporary duty and rotating through country. He agreed to withdraw forces down to 2,500. We didn’t specifically talk about operational capability or going forward in the future of how this would look.

MT: Did he object to the 2,500 number?

CM: No. The president was comfortable with that. The idea that we would maintain leverage and try to, as I mentioned earlier, try to establish some sort of interim government and coalition government that would have reduced the chance of a chaotic departure.

MT: What was his grasp of the situation in Afghanistan? And what did he want to see, from your vantage point as the acting defense secretary?

CM: I felt that he had a very good grasp. One of the criticisms is that, you know, he didn’t understand national security. He had enormous common sense when it came to how things work. And I was always intrigued, if not surprised, because I picked up all the press that, you know, he didn’t know what he was doing and whatnot. I never really knew that. I didn’t know the president until the night where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in that operation. That’s where I met him. I was with all our national security interactions, I was always very, very impressed with his grasp of the details and grasp of the overarching situation. And people will say, Well, he didn’t use typical national security language, which most people would like. ‘What’s the most dangerous course of action, what’s the most probable enemy course of action? And that sort of vernacular. But I always saw that he actually covered all that stuff in his own way, because he’s a businessman and he was looking at it from that context, the way he was trained. But at the end of the day, everybody got his say, he listened to everybody. He asked really good questions. And at the end of a cabinet level meeting in the Oval Office, he always went around and asked for your final recommendation. And then he made a decision. And I’m like, ‘What more could you want from a boss?’

MT: Do you think that negotiating with the Taliban was ultimately a mistake?

CM: No, it wasn’t. That’s how these wars end. You have to negotiate with your opponent and that [for] insurgencies and counterinsurgency, this is kind of par for the course, this is a standard. There was no ability to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. There was the ability — we just decided not to do what was necessary to do that, which I, as an American, agreed with, by the way. We can win. But is it worth the trampling of American values and ethics and norms? The United States military can win any war, let’s be perfectly clear. But we also have our value-based democracy where there’s some things that we’re not going to do. And I totally agree with that.

MT: What would it have taken to win to win the war in Afghanistan.

CM: In 2002, deciding to make it a special operations theater and just keep it small footprint and not expand the war the way we did.

MT: Was there mission creep in Afghanistan?

CM: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Classic example of mission creep and lack of strategic coherence. I was just a young person when I went. I had orange hair then. So, I wasn’t involved in those discussions. I was just an implementer, like so many of our current members and veterans were. So, I wasn’t involved in that, but you execute the orders given by your superior.

MT: But now, you look back, you have the white hair. You were acting defense secretary. What are the lessons to be learned by the U.S. military and the American public about getting involved in a foreign conflict?

CM: They’re not lessons learned. They’re lessons relearned. No. 1 is cultural arrogance will hurt you, and understanding local dynamics and how foreign countries and their populations interact is really important. No. 2, we did it again. We tried to — just like we did in Vietnam — we tried to create an army in our image, which was completely inappropriate for their skills, their desires and their traditions of warfighting. So, that was another lesson relearned, I would argue. And then I really think we have to be honest with ourselves as a military. In these wars, the United States military, we pretty much had full authorization and the ability to execute the strategy we decided, and I think we need to do some serious soul searching. The thing is, we came out of Iraq, it took forever to do Iraq lessons learned — the military was very adamantly opposed. Some very courageous general officers and others decided to do that, of course. That occurs, what, eight years after the end of the war? I think it’s really, really important that the military does an accurate, fair, unbiased assessment of what occurred.

MT: When you were part of the decision-making system, were you confident in a May withdrawal as President Trump had wanted? Would it have worked and why?

CM: Yeah, I mean, there’s this. The negotiation process wasn’t over with the agreement between the United States and the Taliban. There was a follow-on phase, which was going to be to establish an interim coalition government and let the Afghans use their traditional structure of the Loya Jirga to ratify the next government and the next stage of their development as a country. I don’t know, because I’d never happened. And also the idea was that we maintain a small counterterrorism footprint there as well. … So, it wasn’t executed. So, I can’t say. Well, maybe it was. I don’t know,

MT: What were the plans that you were talking about? Would there have been a complete withdrawal, giving up Bagram for instance, or have it maintained as a U.S. base?

CM: At that point, we weren’t into the details,. Gen. [Scott] Miller and CENTCOM Commander Gen. [Frank] McKenzie had numerous courses of action for how to retrograde, so I did not go into the precise details of that. And giving up Bagram — I mean, those were always the questions, you know? Is it Kandahar? Is it Bagram? But we weren’t at a point where we could go into those details yet because we still had some other things that we needed that we planned to do.

MT: Was giving up Bagram a mistake?

CM: It is easy for me to sit here and Monday morning quarterback. I don’t know the challenges they were under. And I don’t know, the decision-making that went into giving up Bagram. Having an [air base] in the middle of nowhere, where you can control a large amount of space outside the perimeter is always helpful. But by the same token, you know, how would people have gotten to Bagram, it’s, what, 60 miles north of Kabul? I don’t know. So, it’s easy for me to sit here and throw rocks. But I’m just not going to do that.

MT: Should President Biden have blamed President Trump for what is taking place now in Afghanistan?

CM: Straight politics. Don’t want to get involved. Don’t care. It’s not helpful to America. I think the question is, who’s going to accept responsibility? And I think that my thing is, I was always raised as a military enlisted man — never was an NCO — then was an officer. I was always raised to accept responsibility when something goes wrong. That was the ethos. And that was the core value that I felt strongly about. I haven’t seen anybody accept responsibility yet. I think there does need to be accounting because something went dramatically wrong — someone should accept responsibility. I don’t know who that is. I don’t have enough information. … Here’s what I’m concerned about, like if you’re a young buck sergeant, or you’re a young second lieutenant, first lieutenant, and you’re watching your leadership kind of play these politics. I mean, what is that the message that that our leadership should be sending? These kids are desperate for authenticity, they’re desperate for just truth. And when they see the involvement of the military in these political affairs, it must be very confusing for them. And that’s what concerns me the most about what’s going on right now.

MT: Do you accept any responsibility for any of this? And if so, what is that?

CM: I’d gladly, eagerly accept all responsibility for every Department of Defense decision that was made up till 12:01 a.m. on the 20th of January 2021. I’ll stand by these decisions. I’m a career Special Forces special operator, and I’m extremely critical of my performance. That’s the beauty of special operators, they always do their after-action review and try to improve their performance. And obviously, there are things I always want to improve. But I will take full responsibility for every decision that was made there in the department.

MT: Is there anything you would do differently?

CM: I probably should have been more vocal in guaranteeing that the incoming administration recognized the challenges they were going to face. I also was quite aware that they are part of the foreign policy intelligentsia and elite and, and I thought they would understand what was going on. I probably should have been more forceful. I don’t know if it would have done any good, because the whole process of transition was so politicized at that point. I wish it was about national security. I thought it was about America. That wasn’t the experience I had, and I probably went a little weak and kind of got puffy-lipped and, you know, took my stuff and went to the corner. I probably should have been much more dramatic. But I didn’t want, I didn’t think it was appropriate at the time, to go public with those things. Because you know, what’s good for the Department of Defense is good for America. So, I did not want to further politicize a horribly complex and difficult situation for the incoming team. So … I’ll accept full responsibility for that.

MT: What would you have said?

CM: I wasn’t asked. So it doesn’t make any difference. I mean, it would have been nice to be able to sit and go through the top five issues that were coming up and have a conversation about that. But that wasn’t the way it worked. And so, so be it.

MT: So, over this long, 20 years of war, you’ve known people who have lost their lives, who have lost limbs, who have continued to suffer the seen and unseen wounds of war. You know many families that have lost loved ones, who paid the ultimate price for this last 20 years. What’s your message to those people?

CM: I mean, that’s really what brought me out to speak with you and go public, that hasn’t been what I’ve done since I left the office. My heart goes out to the Gold Star families. And I can’t even fathom what they’re going through, the re-injury and the re-traumatization of what they’re going through. And every you know, the cliche question now is, was it worth it? I’ll go to my grave, believing this: There’s just an inherent value of service to your country. And the tragedy that befalls, that’s the nature of war. … War wouldn’t be war if there wasn’t tragedy, right? So, I can’t even fathom or have any words of solace or anything like that. I just, you know, been so honored to serve with them, and they’re well-served with their loved ones.

MT: Earlier, you said that your objective is to see this war end responsibly. We all saw the tumult and chaos in Kabul. Is this war being ended responsibly?

CM: Time will tell. It certainly didn’t get off to a good start. I thought there were other ways we could have brought this end-state into being without the chaos and the crisis that we have seen in the last couple days. I also understand, fundamentally, the challenges and the nature of war, fog, friction, chaos. But we do have a military that’s extremely well-trained, extremely experienced, that is designed to wring out as much of the unknown as they can. We have an intelligence community that we spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on. There’s been a fundamental failure that we need to look at and see how this happened and what we’re going to do to prevent it from happening again.

MT: At this point, you’re not prepared to say what that failure was.

CM: I think it’s just too politicized right now. With all the finger-pointing, I hope to assist our nation as we go through this reckoning and our after-action review and develop our lessons learned about how we can avoid something like this in the future.

Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.

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