Army Lt. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller faces a stark central question as he becomes the United States’ newest commander in Afghanistan this weekend: With local forces struggling and questions swirling about President Trump’s support for the war, how long will America persist?
Miller, a respected veteran of some of the U.S. military’s most secretive combat units, takes the reins at a time of intense skepticism about what can be accomplished in a 17-year-old war. His mission to bring the United States’ longest war to a close is made more difficult by political upheaval in Kabul and Trump’s ambivalence about costly foreign wars.
Miller will be the first commander whose mission is as much diplomatic as military, as the Taliban’s resilience fuels a new drive to secure a peace deal allowing for a dignified U.S. drawdown.
“Throughout the ups and downs of this conflict, it’s become evident that the United States is not going to defeat the Taliban insurgency, even though it can prevent a Taliban victory,” said Laurel E. Miller, a former senior official who is now at the Rand Corp.
The 57-year-old general steps out of the shadowy Special Operations world Sunday to take over from Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr.
Miller’s most recent assignment was as the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees elite forces that include SEAL Team 6, Delta Force and the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment. He has deep experience in Afghanistan, including a stint heading Special Operations forces there from 2013 to 2014.
“The more I stay there, sometimes the more difficult it becomes to understand,” he said of Afghanistan and its protracted conflict during his confirmation hearing this year. “I think I recognize what I do not understand at this stage of my career.”
The arc of Miller’s career reflects the evolution of U.S. Special Operations over the past quarter-century. His actions as a Delta Force captain are described in the book “Black Hawk Down,” which details the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia that killed 18 U.S. service members and included the shoot-down of two Army helicopters. He was wounded in Somalia and Iraq.
The war in Afghanistan is at a delicate point. The Taliban still controls about 14 percent of the country’s 407 districts and contests an additional 30 percent after nearly 17 years of war, according to a recent report from a government watchdog.
The fragility of the Afghan government’s grip was highlighted most recently by a powerful militant assault on Ghazni, a provincial capital, that took U.S. and Afghan reinforcements to shake loose.
Unlike earlier years when U.S. troops spearheaded combat operations, the role of U.S. ground forces is now primarily aimed at enabling local troops, making their performance a central metric for U.S. success. The Afghan army continues to struggle with desertions and high casualties and, without help from a small cadre of elite forces, has difficulty mounting major offensives.
Miller has said the strategy Trump adopted a year ago, which provided for a modest increase in troop levels and greater leeway for U.S. forces to conduct air attacks, appears to be working. But he has avoided the kind of pronouncements about military progress other generals have made that have failed to stand up over time.
Speaking in June, Miller told lawmakers that he would not talk about turning points “unless there is one” and that he could not guarantee “a timeline or an end date” to the war.
A military official familiar with Miller’s thinking said that while the general supports the administration’s overall strategy, he is open to making changes within it. He said Miller plans to spend more than a week meeting with coalition troops deployed across the country.
“He specifically said that he wants to get down and meet with first sergeants and platoon sergeants,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the general’s plans.
Pentagon leaders have placed a new emphasis on forging a peace deal, crafting a battlefield strategy they hope will drive militant leaders toward the negotiating table.
Speaking to reporters last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cited recent statements from religious leaders and the Taliban as proof that the militant group is increasingly feeling pressure to negotiate. In June, the Taliban agreed to a temporary cease fire, the first of its kind.
Military officials’ emphasis on the need for a political resolution is a departure from their earlier resistance to the notion of cutting a deal with an adversary that has killed thousands of U.S. troops.
But analysts and former officials remain skeptical of the odds for a deal, noting the militants have consistently rebuffed the Afghan government’s insistence that it must lead negotiations, a key sticking point that has scuttled earlier attempts to foster peace.
“How do you reconcile those mutually reasonable but seemingly irreconcilable positions?” asked retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, who headed foreign forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.
James Schwemlein, a former State Department official, said military officials would need to embrace real compromise, such as removing certain militants from strike lists during negotiations, if they want a peace process to occur.
“Peace talks should not be seen as a way of orchestrating the Taliban’s defeat, as Secretary Mattis, Gen. Nicholson and other military leaders sometimes confuse, but of achieving a final settlement based on mutual concessions,” he said, describing the process as a “scalpel not a hammer.”
Miller may have limited room to make adjustments to the U.S. strategy, particularly any that involve additional resources, at a moment when the Pentagon seeks to reorient the military toward threats from Russia and China.
He will also be under pressure to demonstrate progress to a commander in chief who is deeply ambivalent about the U.S. project there.
Speaking last summer at the close of a long, contentious debate over Afghan strategy, Trump acknowledged that his original instinct had been to withdraw U.S. troops.
“And historically, I like following my instincts,” the president said. While he ultimately yielded to aides who argued that pulling out would leave the United States vulnerable to terrorist attacks, Trump has hinted since then of his eagerness to make a change.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Trump told him this spring that the United States was “getting the hell out of there.”
While U.S. officials note that the current strategy ties the military footprint to security conditions rather than any set timeline, the possibility of a surprise pronouncement from Trump has weighed on officials from Washington to Kabul.
“People joke about it, but it’s not really a joke,” one former official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about government discussions. “There’s concern that you could wake up one morning and see a tweet that we should be withdrawing.”
Trump isn’t the first commander in chief who entered the White House intending to withdraw troops from Afghanistan only to be dissuaded.
Barack Obama, who campaigned on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, charted a course toward leaving after his 2010 troop surge but later changed tack when Afghan troops proved they were not ready to shoulder the combat burden alone.
While officials say the administration is committed to staying the course in Afghanistan, another factor in the president’s evaluation of the war’s progress is likely to be its price tag, which now amounts to $45 billion a year. The president recently complained about “tremendously expensive” military exercises with South Korea, which cost a comparatively paltry $14 million.
Miller, like commanders before him, will be among the voices arguing that a continued footprint is needed to keep Americans safe.
“Every single intelligence assessment we get says that if we leave right now, Afghanistan will become a terrorist safe haven,” the military official said. “Every single one.”
That argument will be hard for the president to resist, at least while he remains responsible for its implications, said James Dobbins, another former senior diplomat now at Rand. Today, as they did during his strategy review, the president’s aides are likely to present him with a blunt choice about the war.
“You want to get out of Afghanistan? Here is what is going to happen: The place is going to collapse, and it’s going to collapse quickly, and people are going to blame it on you,” Dobbins said. “Do you want that?”