He spent years at war in Afghanistan. Now he commands the U.S. withdrawal.

Dan Lamothe

June 7, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
Gen. Austin ‘Scott’ Miller said U.S. troops can do what is needed to ‘go out with our heads held high’
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During his first two years in command in America’s longest war, Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller oversaw a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan that came in waves under President Donald Trump. Now he was meeting with the new president for the first time, via video feed from the White House.

Miller and other senior military officers had urged Trump to leave a couple thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan to counter threats posed by terrorist groups, and they were recommending roughly the same to President Biden. While Biden and Trump disagreed on many issues, both had vowed to end U.S. involvement in a conflict that Pentagon officials said they could not win on the battlefield.

Biden and Miller would meet only that one time before the president announced in April that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by September, U.S. officials said.

After 2,400 U.S. military deaths, more than $2 trillion spent and about a dozen generals under four presidents, Miller expects to be the last U.S. commander in the war. He won’t be able to rewrite history. But he’ll command the departure.

“There’s a sense of obligation to get this as close to right as possible,” he said in an interview. “And in this case, as close to right as possible is to protect our force, but it’s also to make sure the Afghans are in the best possible posture.”

This account of Miller’s time in command in Afghanistan is based on interviews with more than a dozen people, including U.S. and Afghan military officers, current and former senior civilian officials, and members of Miller’s staff in Kabul.

What emerges is a portrait of a battle-hardened officer who was steady through chaos and open to trying new approaches as time ran out on the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Restricted by the realities of a 20-year-old conflict, Miller boosted airstrikes to numbers not seen in a decade, and threw his support behind a possible political settlement with the Taliban — even as he privately questioned the group’s willingness to follow through, several officials said.

During his tour, the longest for a U.S. commander in Afghanistan, violence surged in the war and upheaval erupted in Washington amid concerns that Trump would order a rapid departure or fire key officials. Meanwhile, distrust persisted among the warring parties as U.S. officials negotiated the deal with the Taliban.

Despite his concerns, Miller did not pressure either administration. Instead, officials said, he adhered to the principle of civilian control. He worked with other senior officials and built a partnership with Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. diplomat who was tapped by the Trump administration to negotiate with the Taliban days after Miller took command.

The White House did not address questions about how much Biden consulted Miller. Biden, who also conferred with senior defense officials at the Pentagon, has “the utmost respect and admiration” for the general and values his “pressure-tested wisdom and counsel,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said in a statement.

Miller, who colleagues expect will retire this year, declined to disclose his recommendations, saying they are “something I share with my chain of command.” But the general, who previously led the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), acknowledged that he knew from the start that he could be the last U.S. commander, even if he didn’t have “such clarity on it that you really understand how this would transpire.”

Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded Special Operations troops at war alongside Miller, said Miller is someone who will “respect the decision and move on, whether he agrees,” and is not prone to “go in the corner and pout.”

“What leaders like Scott are having to do is go through is a pretty bitter, difficult situation at the end of a career after they’ve done all that sacrifice,” said McChrystal, who resigned as the top commander in Afghanistan in 2010 after members of his staff disparaged members of the Obama administration.

“I’m sure that, you know, in some cases still water runs deeper than we think,” McChrystal said. “But the reality is, there is a maturity and a self-control that Scott Miller has that at the end of the day drives his behavior.”

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When Miller took command in Afghanistan, the Taliban was on the offensive, launching periodic attacks in cities, killing scores of Afghan troops each months, and controlling or contesting territory that was home to about a third of the population, according to U.S. government assessments.

Within weeks, he survived a shocking attack in Kandahar province.

A rogue Afghan security guard opened fire as a group of Americans prepared to leave the provincial governor’s compound, killing Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, a powerful Afghan police chief, along with two other senior Afghan officials.

Miller was a few feet from Raziq when the shooting began. The general took cover behind a vehicle and drew his pistol, directing others amid the violence, said four people who survived the firefight.

The scene was a gruesome mess, with blood mixing with the deep red of smashed pomegranates that had just been offered as gifts to the Americans, the survivors said.

The October 2018 attack was an early reality check.

The shooter also killed Kandahar’s provincial intelligence chief, Abdul Momin, and wounded the governor, Zalmai Wesa, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley and two other Americans.

“If he was targeting Miller, he would have killed him,” said one Army officer who was present. The officer and several others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues involved or concerns about complicating Miller’s job.

The attack came as uncertainty hung over Trump’s plans for the war.

About a year earlier, Trump authorized sending several thousand more troops to Afghanistan. At the time, 11,000 were already there. He acknowledged that the increase went against his instincts to end foreign wars and said, “I heard decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk of the Oval Office.”

But Trump soured on the plan as the Taliban continued to make advances under Miller’s predecessor, Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr.

Miller, who had commanded the elite Delta Force at the height of the Iraq War, took over in September 2018 with about 15,000 U.S. troops under his command.

He began cutting staff, and rotating in other officers from his former JSOC headquarters at Fort Bragg, N.C. He also reduced the number of internal reports that his staff was producing, and the officers compiling them.

One Army officer recalled that at one point, Miller questioned why someone had set out nice dishes for an internal meeting at their headquarters, and whether that job was necessary. Ultimately, Miller trimmed about 2,000 U.S. troops.

His early innovations included an “operational design” that kept U.S. aircraft and Special Operations troops on the move, inflicting significant losses on the Taliban as Khalilzad’s efforts to negotiate with the group commenced.

At the same time, Miller was monitoring the turbulence in Washington.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, seen as a moderating force in the administration, was increasingly at odds with Trump on numerous issues, including Afghanistan. The president openly began musing about replacing him.

Mattis told Miller that it was best for the general to stay in Kabul and focus on the mission, as opposed to making occasional, customary visits to Washington to give congressional testimony and briefings with journalists, several officials said.

“Mattis sensed nothing good could be gained from the military commander speaking based on where we were in the war. And I think that part General Miller probably agreed with,” said Kim Field, a retired Army general whom Miller brought on as a civilian adviser. “What do you want me to say? That we’re winning militarily? That’s not where we are anymore.”

Other senior defense officials also thought that Miller should limit his role in Washington, officials said.

“There has been a common policy that the chairman and the secretary should be bearing the brunt and the burden of those public duties, as much as is possible and correct,” Malkasian said.

Miller declined to comment on the issue. But he pointed out that he has done interviews with numerous journalists in Kabul, including from The Washington Post. He has not yet briefed the Pentagon press corps, but two defense officials said discussions are underway for him to do so soon.

Miller also has not testified before Congress in an open hearing since taking his job, a point that Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, raised recently. But the general privately briefed lawmakers in a classified setting in December 2019.

Mattis said in a text message that he could not remember telling Miller to avoid speaking publicly.

“I had/have total confidence in Gen Miller’s competence and judgment, so I would not have given him such directions,” he said.

Mattis acknowledged that he “didn’t like” battlefield commanders being called to Washington to testify before Congress or meet with journalists.

“That was because I needed them in-country focused on their duties,” he said.

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A dangerous moment

Weeks after the attack in Kandahar, political turmoil erupted at home.

The president ordered a U.S. withdrawal from Syria in late 2018 and wanted to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan nearly in half, even though negotiations with the Taliban were ongoing. Mattis resigned afterward, saying Trump deserved a defense secretary with views in line with his.

Miller reassured Afghan partners and his own staff that Trump had issued no withdrawal orders.

“A lot of commanders will just talk to run their mouths. But when he spoke, it was important,” said one Army officer who served under him in Kabul. “People trusted that if something really was going to happen, they were going to hear it from him.”

In the ensuing months, Khalilzad met with senior Taliban officials, sometimes with Miller. Miller informed Taliban leaders that even if the U.S. military were to begin withdrawing, they would continue to conduct airstrikes in support of Afghan forces as needed, two senior U.S. officials said.

The deal that the Trump administration ultimately signed with the Taliban in February 2020 called for all U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan by May 2021. But the requirements on the Taliban were minimal.

The agreement required Taliban leaders to begin separate negotiations with the Afghan government, but it did not say they had to make any progress in those talks. The Taliban also agreed to hold fire on U.S. troops, but soon returned to its bloody campaign against Afghan soldiers.

The deal also called for the Afghan government to release Taliban prisoners as a condition for further negotiations — a requirement that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was reluctant to accept.

Khalilzad and Miller met Ghani and discussed the issue, said U.S. officials familiar with the meeting. Ghani asked Miller what he thought, and Miller suggested it might be one of the only ways to continue forward, one of the officials said.

Months later, in August, Ghani agreed to release the last group of 400 high-value Taliban members, paving the way for negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government. The talks have sputtered since.

Miller and several people who served under his command declined to describe the deal in detail. But one former staff member said it was a struggle to “not be embarrassed” after seeing the specifics and how tough it would be for Miller to stop Taliban violence.

“When you see something written like that and you have an analytic brain, a curious brain, my initial reaction is: ‘Is this it? Really?’ ” the official said.

Several staff members described Miller’s deep commitment to the welfare of his soldiers, shaped in part by the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. The two-day clash, punctuated by the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters by Somali militiamen, killed 18 U.S. troops and wounded dozens of others, including Miller, and exposed gaps in U.S. military preparation.

Miller, who also was wounded later in Iraq, is now doing everything he can to prevent the loss of any more members of the coalition in Afghanistan, officials said.

Michèle Flournoy, a senior defense official during the Obama administration, said military literature suggests that “one of the most dangerous moments in any campaign is during a retrograde or a withdrawal under fire.”

“We don’t know if they’ll be under fire, but it’s possible given the way the Taliban is behaving,” said Flournoy, who has known Miller for years. “I think that has got to be the focus right now, is how to do this in a way that reduces risk to our forces that are pulling out.”

Miller, who will have spent a total of about seven years in Afghanistan by the completion of the withdrawal, said the military has the means to protect itself if attacked.

“To date — and it’s to date — we have not seen that. But that’s only as good as until somebody decides to attack coalition forces,” Miller said. “We do think it’s very dangerous, and we take it seriously and it’s something we talk about every single day.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

He spent years at war in Afghanistan. Now he commands the U.S. withdrawal.