A December 2020 photo shows Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, left, with Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the last commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

A December 2020 photo shows Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, left, with Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the last commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Patrick Tucker / Defense One

Trump’s Pledge to Exit Afghanistan Was a Ruse, His Final SecDef Says

Chris Miller now says talk of a full withdrawal was a “play” to convince a Taliban-led government to keep U.S. counterterrorism forces.

President Donald Trump’s top national security officials never intended to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, according to new statements by Chris Miller, Trump’s last acting defense secretary. 

Miller said the president’s public promise to finish withdrawing U.S. forces by May 1, as negotiated with the Taliban, was actually a “play” that masked the Trump administration’s true intentions: to convince Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to quit or accept a bitter power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, and to keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan for counterrorism missions.

In a conversation this week with Defense One, Miller revealed that while serving as the top counterterrorism official on the National Security Council in 2019, he commissioned a wargame that determined that the United States could continue to conduct counterterrorism in Afghanistan with just 800 American military personnel on the ground. And by the end of 2020, when he was acting defense secretary, Miller asserted, many Trump administration officials expected that the United States would be able to broker a new shared government in Afghanistan composed primarily of Taliban officials. The new government would then permit U.S. forces to remain in country to support the Afghan military and fight terrorist elements. 

That plan never happened, in part because Trump lost his reelection bid in November. And at least one other former senior Trump administration official questioned Miller’s retelling. But in revealing it, Miller challenged recent assertions that Trump is to blame for setting up this week’s chaotic scenes unfolding across Kabul. Miller alleged that despite Trump’s frequent public pledges to end the Afghanistan war and bring home all U.S. troops, many senior national security officials in his administration believed a total withdrawal was not inevitable. 

The spectre of Trump’s public comments has lingered into the new administration. On Monday, President Joe Biden asserted that Trump’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban and subsequent troop withdrawals, along with the American public’s growing desire to end the war, left the new president just two choices: send thousands of U.S. troops back into Afghanistan for a fruitless mission or completely and quickly withdraw. 

In December, Miller touched down in Afghanistan to formally discuss with Afghan leaders the end of the U.S. troop presence. The response of then-President ​​Ashraf Ghani surprised Miller. “I expected hostility,” he recalled in conversation with Defense One on Saturday. “Instead, he was gracious and respectful. He talked about the sacrifices of the Americans. He thanked the Gold Star families. He said, ‘You have done so much’.” 

But the tone of the discussions changed when Miller met with Ghani’s vice president, Amrullah Saleh, who had also served in key intelligence roles over the years. 

“He came in and just talked about the threat,” said Miller. “Essentially, the message was: ‘This is going to be bad. And if this happens, al-Qaeda is going to be back’.” 

The U.S. delegation and their Afghan counterparts didn’t talk strategy or go into any details about what lay ahead during the meetings, Miller said. The participants already seemed to know the bleak facts. “It would not have been appropriate to say ‘Is your Army going to collapse?’ But of course we were all thinking that.”

While Miller acknowledged on Saturday that it would have been impossible for the United States to support the Afghanistan government forever, he said the Taliban’s rapid advance across the country and the resulting deadly chaos playing out in Kabul could have been avoided had the Biden administration heeded military and national security experts. 

Miller is a true believer in special operations forces capabilities. He landed in Afghanistan in December 2001 at the beginning of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Later, he served as a Green Beret commander and as director of the National Counterterrorism Centers. Appointed acting defense secretary just days after Trump lost his re-election bid, Miller soon traveled to the Green Berets’ home of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for a ceremony to elevate the authority of the special operations assistant secretary. 

Weeks later, Miller flew to Afghanistan, where he met Ghani and visited with American troops at Afghan Army’s Special Operations Command at Camp Morehead, in Wardak Province. 

"I always felt it was a huge strategic error by expanding the war. I thought the war was for special operations, small footprint,” he said at the time.  

By then, Miller knew that some in the U.S. intelligence community believed the war could become smaller once again, and sustainable. 

“We did plenty of wargames on this and we knew what the minimal force structure was,” he said this week. “The number was 800. If this all goes bad, what is the minimal force structure needed to maintain [counterterrorism] strike and reconnaissance capability? We can do it for 800, 850.” 

Defense One was able to confirm Miller’s account of the 800-personnel study independently with another former NSC staff member. 

Miller said he understood Trump’s May 1 withdrawal deal to be a negotiating tactic. 

“The whole policy strategy going forward was ‘Ghani is going to have to deal with the Taliban.’ And it wasn’t going to be a 50-50 split between the Afghan government and Taliban. We knew that. It was going to be 75-25 [majority Taliban], and then you flip this thing into an interim government,” he said.

Miller said this was his perception following a meeting of the National Security Council Deputies Committee on the Taliban negotiations, led by Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, the lead U.S. negotiator, around February 2020. Top Trump administration officials announced the first parameters of their deal with the Taliban at the Munich Security Conference that month, in Germany, attended by Khalilzad, Ghani, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Miller’s predecessor as defense secretary, Mike Esper.  

Pompeo offered his own recollections in a Monday appearance on Fox Business. 

“We would have demanded that the Taliban actually deliver on the conditions that we laid out in the agreement—including the agreement to engage in meaningful power-sharing agreement—something that we struggled to get them to do but made clear it was going to be a requirement before we completed our requirement to fully withdraw," Pompeo said.

But Miller said there was never meant to be a full withdrawal; the “play” was to persuade the Ghani administration to accept an interim, coalition government or quit as the Taliban demanded. A new government then would be ratified by loya jirga, a traditional Pashtun legal assembly of tribal leaders, which likely would have transferred key ministerial posts and other powers to the Taliban. 

“It wasn’t an unconditional surrender: ‘We’re leaving, heading for the door’,” Miller said. “We weren’t just going to head for the door. We were going to jam Ghani hard and make him cut a deal with the Taliban. It would have been ugly. It wouldn’t have been great. But there was no plan to just leave."

The hope was that the process would have allowed the United States, either through Ghani or his replacement, to negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement to extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan under the guise of continued counterterrorism training. 

"There was going to be a new government. The Taliban wouldn’t exist as an independent entity. That deal is no longer valid. The whole idea was they would agree," Miller said. "We would have called it ‘security assistance,’ so that they could save face, but we were going to maintain a [counterterrorism] strike and reconnaissance capability."

“We were in a stalemate,” he said. “If the Taliban started massing and coming out of their insurgency state...we would have put [American] advisors with Afghan forces.” 

If the Taliban attacked Afghan and U.S. forces, the United States would better be able to respond by calling in targeted air strikes, he said. 

In the meantime, Miller argued, the interim government process would have bought the United States time to conduct an orderly evacuation in stark contrast to what is playing out in Kabul this week. 

Miller felt the process of establishing that new government also would have kept the Taliban in negotiations rather than speeding to take over Kabul. 

ln March, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley reportedly told Biden that leaving fewer than 2,500 troops could allow quick Taliban gains and re-establish a haven for extremist groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS to plan attacks against Western targets. Milley’s office this week reportedly has warned some lawmakers already that it is revising the threat level it sees from terrorists in the Middle East. 

On Wednesday, Milley said the time for reviewing past decisions on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan will come later, but asserted that the Pentagon planned for several possible scenarios for the Taliban advance. “One of those contingencies is what we are executing right now,” he said in a press conference. 

The chairman’s office did not respond to requests to comment for this story. 

Experts long have argued over just how few U.S. troops were needed in Afghanistan to deter and respond to terrorism threats and to continue training and supporting Afghan forces. 

Mike Nagata, a retired Army three-star who directed strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, said that he wasn't surprised to hear the 800-troop number but that it is inadequate.

“Based on my counterterrorism experience, several thousand U.S. personnel are necessary inside Afghanistan to conduct the intelligence and operational activities needed for reasonable confidence that we could thwart the creation of a new terrorist 'safe-haven' capable of transnational terrorist attacks. However, this is unrelated to what would be needed to sustain the ability of the Afghan government to secure their own population and territory from the Taliban,” said Nagata, who also commanded U.S. Special Operations Command Central. 

Even with several thousand troops, Nagata said, the counterterrorism effort would still carry significant risk because of “the enormous size of Afghanistan, the ruggedness of its terrain, and the complexity of its population."

A second former senior Trump administration official acknowledged that there were efforts, led mostly by Khalilzad, to oust Ghani in order to appease the Taliban. 

“That was what [Khalilzad] was pushing and that’s what the Taliban wanted. They wanted to get rid of the legitimate government,” said the official. 

The official acknowledged that the United States had few options for keeping the Taliban out of Kabul. “The decision space was either: keep a small U.S. counterterrorism presence along with 7,000 to 8,000 NATO troops and kind of hold down the fort and protect our counterterrorism interests, or go to zero and cede the country to the Taliban.”

However, the official disagreed strongly that Miller’s idea was workable. “The Taliban were never going to agree to let any U.S. forces stay in the country and if any U.S. official thought that was possible, I think they were a victim of wishful thinking.”  

But, said the former senior Trump administration official, the way in which the Afghan government collapsed could still have been avoided with a more gradual withdrawal.

“There’s probably a middle option to withdraw U.S. forces gradually and keep [special operations] contractors, or at least some of the contractors, in the country. I think what really undermined the Afghans was pulling all 16,000 contractors as well as all U.S. forces so abruptly. It changed the ground under their feet drastically and overnight. And there’s a psychological element if you realize that your partner of the last 20 years has just abandoned you.”