Defense secretary sent classified memo to White House about Afghanistan before Trump fired him

November 14, 2020
President Trump watches as Mark T. Esper speaks after being sworn in as secretary of defense on July 23, 2019. Trump fired Esper this week.
In the run-up to the election, President Trump’s tweet saying that all U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas!” raised alarm among senior U.S. officials who had been working on a more gradual withdrawal.

The existing plan, tied to precarious negotiations with the Taliban insurgent group to sign a peace deal with the Afghan government, had not yielded the progress that American officials wanted. While the Pentagon was on its way to reducing the number of troops to less than 5,000 this month, negotiations appeared to stall and the Taliban continued to launch attacks across the country.

After consulting with senior military officers, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sent a classified memo to the White House this month expressing concerns about additional cuts, according to two senior U.S. officials familiar with the discussion. Conditions on the ground were not yet right, Esper wrote, citing the ongoing violence, possible dangers to the remaining troops in the event of a rapid pullout, potential damage to alliances and apprehension about undercutting the negotiations.

This account of the deliberations over Afghanistan in the waning days of the Trump administration is based on interviews with 21 current and former U.S. and Afghan officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Trump’s relationship with Esper soured months ago over several issues, but some in the president’s orbit said Trump’s frustration with what he sees as an entrenched military resistant to his goals played a role. Others denied that Esper’s position on Afghanistan had anything to do with it.

The turmoil in the Pentagon comes amid deep uncertainty about how the time between now and Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, will play out. While some Republicans have congratulated former vice president Joe Biden on his victory, Trump administration officials have signaled that they will fight to stay in office.

The situation is highlighting a long-standing rift between the isolationist factions of the Trump administration and more traditional conservatives and prompted speculation that the Trump loyalists installed at the Pentagon may attempt to force through changes.

Colin Jackson, who served as a senior Pentagon official overseeing Afghanistan early in the Trump administration, advocated against a withdrawal now.

“We don’t have a single example where pulling the plug has gone well — Vietnam, Iraq,” he said. “Not one.”

One former senior White House official said it is not possible for the United States to remove all troops “without crushing the coalition there.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has advocated a swift and total withdrawal, stepped into the debate Wednesday.

“Reminder to those saying withdrawing troops may cause a ‘clash’ with Generals/Pentagon: there is only one Commander in Chief, it is @realDonaldTrump and when he orders the troops out of Afghanistan, the only proper answer is ‘Yes sir,’ ” he tweeted.

The new appointees include Christopher Miller, who leapfrogged several more senior administration officials in the Pentagon to become acting defense secretary; Kash Patel, a former aide of Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.); and Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who has often called for the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Miller, most recently the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Patel have both worked at length with national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who has disagreed publicly in recent weeks with Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about what the administration’s plan entails.

During a speech last month, O’Brien announced at an event in Las Vegas that the United States “will go down to 2,500” by early next year in Afghanistan.

Milley dismissed those remarks during an interview with NPR as “speculation” and said the United States wanted to end the war “responsibly” and “deliberately.”

O’Brien then doubled down. “When I’m speaking, I’m speaking for the president, and I think that’s what the Pentagon is moving out and doing,” he said.

Jonathan Rath Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement Friday that Miller is working with Trump and the entire national security team “on meeting our Afghanistan strategic objectives.” In calls and meetings with NATO partners this week, Miller “consistently assured them of our process with respect to Afghanistan,” Hoffman added.

One former senior government official who occasionally talks to the president said he thought it was possible that Trump may order cuts to 2,500. The official questioned the wisdom, saying it gives away “leverage in the peace negotiations.”

Miller has not aired his views about a possible drawdown but is seen by others in the administration as open to cutting deeper than 4,500.

On Friday, he spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg about issues that include Afghanistan, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said in an email.

“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” Lungescu said. “At the same time, we want to preserve the gains made with such sacrifice, and to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that can attack the United States or any other NATO ally.”

Partner nations have made clear to the Trump administration that they cannot and will not remain in Afghanistan if there is a complete U.S. withdrawal, but have been told by Miller that there has been no change in policy and there will be no surprises.

The Afghan government has not been informed of a change to the U.S. withdrawal timeline, according to an Afghan official. President Ashraf Ghani’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and U.S. Forces Afghanistan referred questions to the Pentagon.

The possibility of a rapid withdrawal comes as violence has spiked in Afghanistan. The latest government watchdog report states that attacks by the Taliban and other anti-government groups had recently spiked 50 percent. In the regions hardest hit, local officials are warning that if the withdrawal timeline is accelerated, government forces might be unable to defend themselves.

One U.S. official said the time frame associated with a potential drawdown decision would inform the logistics of that process and “how much more dangerous it would be rather than a fully planned and well-executed withdrawal.”

The official said that while there is “some indication” that the Taliban has ordered its fighters not to attack American personnel, that might not hold true during a final withdrawal. As U.S. personnel make rapid air and ground movements to prepare for their departure and remaining facilities becoming more scarcely manned, “it would be more difficult to get out safely and rapidly,” the official said.

Edward Dorman, a retired major general who served as U.S. Central Command’s director for logistics from 2016 to 2018, said that if an American departure is authorized, some U.S. bases or facilities would probably be turned over to the Afghan military, as long as officials were confident they would be maintained and not lost to the Taliban.

Even if a handover does occur, it would require significant steps to prepare. Bases that weren’t handed over to the Afghan military would need to be torn down and, either way, environmental remediation would likely be required.

Biden has not directly addressed the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February, leading to the partial withdrawal of troops that is now underway. But he has said he plans to reduce the number of troops to “several thousand” to ensure that neither al-Qaeda nor the Islamic State is in a position to launch attacks against the United States.

Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official who is seen as a leading candidate for defense secretary under Biden, has said that a “precipitous” withdrawal would undermine peace and that a counterterrorism force should remain in Afghanistan at least until a comprehensive agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government is in place.

The U.S.-Taliban deal promises full U.S. withdrawal by the end of April if its conditions, including Taliban negotiations with the Afghan government and a reduction in violence, have been met. It contains no provision for a residual U.S. counterterrorism force.

Asked whether Biden plans to continue with the deal, the withdrawal and the current U.S. envoy to the peace talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, a Biden spokesperson said Friday that “President-elect Biden laid out an extensive foreign agenda over the course of the campaign and looks forward to delivering on it once in office.”

The spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak to the news media, said that no more details would be offered at this time. Biden, he said, “firmly believes in the principle that there must be only one president at a time guiding our country’s foreign policy and national security as he is focused on preparing to govern.”

Ellen Nakashima, Greg Jaffe, Josh Dawsey and Julie Tate contributed to this report.


Trump’s new Pentagon sets up clash over Afghanistan pullout


Any move to accelerate withdrawals would set up a clash with the nation’s top generals and other civilians.

Christopher Miller testifies during a hearing.
Christopher Miller testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Sept. 24, 2020. | Tom Williams, Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s decapitation strike on the Pentagon this week is raising fears that the U.S. will accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, putting newly installed leaders on a collision course with top generals and others who are urging a more deliberate drawdown.

Current and former administration officials say Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper Monday in part over his opposition to accelerating troop drawdowns worldwide, and especially in Afghanistan. The upheaval accelerated on Tuesday with the resignation of three high-level civilians and the installation of loyalists who are expected to ram through Trump’s agenda, and continued on Wednesday when retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, an outspoken critic of the war in Afghanistan, was brought on as senior adviser to new acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller.

“A precipitous and what appears to be near total withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan — not on a conditions-based approach advocated by our military, political and intelligence leadership but rather on an old campaign promise by President Trump now carried out by hyperpartisan Trump loyalists installed in a last-minute purge of DoD — is both reckless and will not make America safer,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired CIA senior operations officer.

Concerns are also growing within the national security community that the personnel churn portends other major policy shifts, such as military actions abroad and in the U.S. Yet current and former administration officials believe the moves were more about rewarding allies and punishing those who resisted the president’s agenda than they were about major changes in direction.

After Esper’s firing, the White House on Tuesday rapidly installed longtime Trump loyalists. They included retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, whose Islamophobic tweets prompted bipartisan backlash, as the acting policy chief, and Kash Patel, an acolyte of Rep. Devin Nunes who played a key role as a Hill staffer in helping Republicans discredit the Russia probe, as Miller’s chief of staff.

So far, defense officials say the new Pentagon leadership team has not floated any drastic policy changes and is primarily concerned with getting up to speed. On Wednesday, many senior officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, were out of the building participating in Veterans Day events.

“There is a lot of concern among military and former civilian Pentagon people that this shift was because [Trump] intends to take some kind of controversial military action and wanted junior political people that would greenlight it,” said one former Trump official.

The Pentagon is moving to bring the troop level down to 4,500 this month, but that’s where the agreement ends. National security adviser Robert O’Brien says the number should drop to 2,500 by January before heading to zero in May — per the peace plan Washington signed with the Taliban — but Trump has said the U.S. “should” completely pull out by this Christmas.

Meanwhile, Gen. Scott Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has repeatedly said violence in the country is still too high.

The Pentagon’s policy and intelligence chiefs would typically be the ones providing leaders with input on troop drawdown matters. Now that those posts are filled by loyalists — Tata and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a close ally of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, respectively — it becomes easier for the president to push through his agenda.

Former and current defense officials say the new acting defense secretary is not interested in making major changes. A former Green Beret and director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Miller has publicly advocated for defeating al Qaeda and stopping terrorists from making Afghanistan a safe haven. Miller will likely present the president with all the options for and against going down to zero troops in Afghanistan, but ultimately Trump gets to decide.

Miller is viewed as a competent professional dedicated to serving the country, but how he balances ensuring calm with the president’s demands is an open question.

“I don’t think they know” what the White House has planned, “and of course not knowing in the Pentagon makes people nervous,” said another former defense official. “There are a lot of nervous people.”

The hours following the personnel changes saw no shortage of defense establishment figures sounding the alarm over what Trump may do next with fewer forceful personalities in the Pentagon to stop him.

Officials in the Pentagon are concerned, for example, about the possibility that the president could threaten again to deploy active-duty troops to quash election-related unrest, or to help prevent a presidential transition.

Yet other officials see the personnel moves as basic cronyism, and even an implicit acknowledgement that Trump’s allies risk being out of a job come Jan. 20.

And there were signs late Tuesday that heads would continue to roll at the Pentagon. After the resignation of James Anderson, the former acting Pentagon policy chief, officials gathered to give him a spontaneous “clap-out.” But political appointees were told not to attend or else they would be terminated, according to one defense official.

Two congressional intelligence committee officials said the Ellis move in particular seemed like classic “burrowing in.” That occurs when a political appointee is installed as a civilian member of the Senior Executive Service, making it difficult for Biden to fire him and give him more credibility on paper in the future as someone who has served in a “career” position.

“I think this is mostly about Michael, and only secondly about Trump,” said a former senior NSA official. “Michael has wanted this job for a long time.” The former official added that NSA and DoD had for months been “pushing back” on White House efforts to put Ellis’ name into the mix for the position, which has been vacant since January but managed in the interim by Deputy General Counsel Teisha Anthony. But when Esper was fired, Ellis saw an opening, the former official said.

“It can simultaneously be true that this is a nefarious effort by the Trump administration to convert political appointees into career positions and entrench them in agencies over the long term, and also true that the nature of the NSA general counsel limits what someone could do on their own initiative or without the agreement of the NSA director,” said Susan Hennessey, who served in OGC at NSA. “So that’s one reason to maybe not be alarmed about what might happen in a limited period.”

Defense secretary sent classified memo to White House about Afghanistan before Trump fired him