Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller enters the Afghanistan Presidential Palace on Tuesday, Dec 22, 2020

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller enters the Afghanistan Presidential Palace on Tuesday, Dec 22, 2020 Patrick Tucker

Acting SecDef Miller Visits Troops in Afghanistan

Trump's designee returned 19 years after serving here, this time to oversee a controversial order to rush troops out before Joe Biden is sworn in.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Of the more than 800,000 Americans who have circulated through the Afghanistan war, Chris Miller was among the first and is likely among the last. He first arrived on Dec. 5, 2001, not long after the first contingent of U.S. Special Forces came in under cover of night to help factions of the Northern Alliance take the stronghold of Mazar-al-Sharif. It was the beginning of America’s hunt for Osama bin Laden and the long war against the Taliban and other terrorist groups here. On Tuesday, 19 years later, the acting secretary of defense returned to affirm one of President Donald Trump’s final orders in office — the controversial drawdown of U.S. troops to just 2,500, by Jan. 15 — while U.S. officials press for peace in talks with Afghan government and Taliban leaders.

Miller’s holiday visit to see troops and speak with senior commanders follows Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley’s visit last week and his assessment that the drawdown was proceeding apace. Milley and top commander in Afghanistan Gen. Scott MIller told reporters traveling with the chairman that they can carry out their mission and protect their forces with the reduced troop levels. On that trip, Milley also secretly met directly with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, later revealing it was his second such meeting this year. 

A senior defense official who spoke to reporters this weekend before Miller departed Washington echoed the chairman, saying, “You’re going to still [have] a constellation, it’s just going to be smaller. A few less bases. You’re still going to have the ability to do the missions that we’ve been doing. The locations, consolidation and re-alignment may occur to make that a tighter constellation.” 

In Kabul, Miller met with troops and also Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The acting defense secretary’s visit was not announced until he had departed Afghanistan, per security rules. On Sunday, Miller reflected on the poignance of being one of the first troops on the ground in Afghanistan and then becoming the latest official to announce another drawdown of forces. He had only visited once in the interim, in 2007.

“It’s really kind of crazy to think that the last time I was here was almost 13 years ago. I’ll be interested to see how my emotions are,” Miller told reporters on the flight into the country. “In 2007, I was a tactical- level commander and now we’re back on the ground as the acting secretary of defense. I can remember how it was then and I’m looking forward to seeing where we are today,” he said. “I especially want to see and hear the plan for our continued air support role. Our competitive advantage as the United States military is our control of the air and I think we can do a lot in this regard, even if we don’t have a large physical presence on the ground.” 

The U.S. is hoping that fewer troops working with a modernized Afghan military can continue to do key counterterrorism missions. 

“In the last two decades of us being there, the reason the Afghan Security Forces are able to be out there right now — and they’re on the front lines and unfortunately taking the casualties, the U.S. is not — is because we have given the capability, we have helped them with that capability through train, advise, and assistance. We’re going to continue to be here,” said the official. 

Miller also visited the Afghan Army’s Special Operations Command at Camp Morehead, in Wardak Province where U.S. special operations forces train Afghan commandos, a program established in 2007. He said that the future of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would rely heavily on special operations forces, just as it did at the start of U.S. military presence there in 2001. But this time, Afghanistan has its own elite units. "Special operations folks will be the last folks out. They will continue to provide, and maintain counter-terrorism pressure... and also continue to supply support for Afghan national security forces. I actually walked out of there really confident that we have the right stance," he said. 

"I always felt it was a huge strategic error by expanding the war. I thought the war was for special operations, small footprint. And I just personally thought, if we were smart strategically, Afghanistan would always have a special operations force... I think we would have had a different outcome if we had maintained what we were doing then," meaning the very start of the war with a heavy special operations focus but a small overall force. "Hopefully next Christmas we’re not having this conversation about a whole bunch of people being away from home for the holidays."

Miller also visited Royal Air Force bases Mildenhall and Lakenheath in the United Kingdom, on Monday.