New Acting SecDef Is a Former 'Horse Soldier' Who Played Key Role in Afghanistan Invasion

Christopher Miller in Afghanistan with 5th Special Forces Group.
Christopher Miller, who was named acting defense secretary Nov. 9, 2020, on a deployment to Afghanistan with 5th Special Forces Group circa 2001-2002. (Courtesy Eric Blehm)

When President Donald Trump announced Monday via tweet that he'd fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and installed Christopher C. Miller, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting civilian leader of the Pentagon, some Washington insiders scratched their heads.

Miller, though a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, is not among the most prominent national security names, and the move from leading the relatively small four-directorate NCTC to the entire Defense Department represents a leap.

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But those who know the former Army Special Forces officer and have worked with him describe him as a standout leader who has, at every level of his career, kept perspective on the national impacts of his work and overarching defense strategy.

As a company commander with 5th Special Forces Group, Miller helped to direct the first, covert invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. A small number of Green Berets from 5th Group, some of them on horseback, were sent to defeat the Taliban in an operation depicted years later in the feature film "12 Strong."

According to Jason Amerine, a former member of the unit, Miller was in no small part responsible for the way that first deployment took place.

"Chris basically got 5th Group into the war," Amerine, now a Future of War Fellow at the New America think tank, told on Monday. "In 2001, as we prepared for Afghanistan, there really was no coherent plan initially, and big disagreements between special operations, CIA and the White House. Basically, Chris Miller volunteered 5th Group to become the [Joint Special Operations Task Force] -- to become JSOTF North and spearhead the invasion of Afghanistan."

At the time, Amerine was a captain in a Special Forces A-team, ODA-574; Miller, a 35-year-old major, was part of a B-team, a headquarters element. But on Dec. 5, 2001, after an infamous B-52 bomber friendly fire airstrike that left three American soldiers and 10 Afghan troops dead in Sayyd Alma Kalay in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province, it was Miller's team that came in as a quick-reaction force to support Amerine's devastated forces.

Amerine described Miller as a man universally admired in the SF "world of prima donnas."

"He was the epitome of Special Forces leadership you'd want to see: someone who was calm and cool under pressure," he said. "He could take a step back as all hell was breaking loose; he was an incredible leader. When I heard that he was acting SecDef, I was very, very comforted by that."

Eric Blehm, the New York Times bestselling author who told the story of ODA-574 in his book "The Only Thing Worth Dying For," told on Monday that Miller was striking in that he was, as an Army officer, less career-focused than concerned with telling the story of his soldiers.

"He wants to speak for the average soldier. But at the same time, I think, he was probably the best person I spoke to at a higher-officer level who was able to translate this confusing world of Special Forces into something I could understand," Blehm said. "He's going to be walking a line between civilian policymakers and what's best for the troops on the ground."

Miller would ultimately become the commander of 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, having been part of the 2003 Iraq invasion and completed multiple additional deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. According to documents made public ahead of his confirmation to lead the National Counterterrorism Center, Miller also spent three years of his Army career "detailed from the DoD to the Intelligence Community."

Following his 2014 retirement from the Army, he went to the Pentagon, working for more than two years as a contracted special operations consultant to the under secretaries of defense for Intelligence and Policy. Then, from March 2018 to December 2019, he joined the National Security Council at the White House, serving as special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism and transnational threats. On Jan. 6, 2020, Miller became the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, a position he'd hold until his confirmation as NCTC director on Aug. 10 of this year.

Miller faces long odds in his new role; Trump's dismissal of Esper has been roundly rebuked by Democratic lawmakers and several think tanks as an act of retaliation likely to cause chaos. Miller's jump from NCTC director to acting SecDef is likely to provoke concern from those who believe he lacks experience and qualification for the job. And under the best of conditions, his tenure will probably be very short: It's believed President-elect Joe Biden will nominate Michele Flournoy to lead the Pentagon after he is inaugurated.

Sources describe Miller as understated, with a dry sense of humor and a laid-back energy. But those who know him well warn against underestimating him or the breadth of his expertise.

"His whole career has been focused on global issues facing the Department of Defense," said Amerine, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel.

Amerine pointed out that Miller had been present at the very start of what became known as the Global War on Terror, and now leads the Pentagon amid efforts to draw troops out of Afghanistan and find a conclusion for a 19-year fight.

"For him, it sort of bookends his career, almost in a poetic sense," Amerine said. "You couldn't have a better person right now."

Doug Livermore, a West Point graduate and former Special Forces officer who has worked with and for Miller in various capacities over the last five years, told that Miller had a collaborative and easygoing leadership style offset by sharp focus on his mission objectives.

Though Miller's portfolio is deep with special operations experience, Livermore said he understands conventional warfare and worked during his time at NCTC to focus on preparation for future near-peer competition, in parallel with broader DoD efforts. And in Miller's role as DASD for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, Livermore noted, he took on oversight of the irregular warfare annex to the National Defense Strategy, and insisted on broadening it from its narrow focus on special operations to include the total force.

"Even if you start your career as being very SOF-focused, you get opportunities to expand your career across the conventional side of the force," said Livermore, who now works as a contracted operational adviser to the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict. "He does have a very broad joint education and experience while still in uniform."

In an op ed published in Task and Purpose on Oct. 19, Miller and Livermore together write about the work of aligning special operations objectives with National Defense Strategy priorities and shaping force structure accordingly.

"Revision of various geographic combatant command operational plans specifically call for the application of unconventional warfare capabilities to support irregular warfare in pre-conflict and conflict phases to deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese and Russian aggression," they write.

In a Sept. 10 opinion piece in The Washington Post, Miller lays out another priority: crushing the life from the crippled al-Qaida terror organization before it can regroup and regenerate.

"The only counterterrorism truth is that constant pressure must be maintained on terrorist groups that have the intent or capability to attack us," he wrote.

At the NSC, Miller had opportunities to build personal rapport with Trump, perhaps leading to his positioning, in the president's mind, as a worthy successor to Esper. While at the Pentagon as DASD SOCT, Livermore said, one of the few personal items in Miller's office was a signed photograph of himself sitting beside Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in the White House situation room on Oct. 27, 2019, the night of the U.S. raid resulting in the death of ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

While Miller might not be long for his position, those who know him said he is well-poised to make the most of his time in office: Since he's familiar with the operations of the Pentagon, he'll have less of a learning curve than Esper. And his focus on major mission objectives will serve him well as he prioritizes tasks, Amerine said.

"If you're going to stick somebody in a clutch position for several months to ensure that the U.S. is able to execute its contingencies worldwide ... Chris is just the perfect to basically do just that," he said.

Miller's return to the Pentagon as acting defense secretary Monday afternoon came with a minor hitch: He stumbled, and almost fell, while climbing the steps to the River Entrance. But figuratively, if not literally, he hit the ground running.

"We were definitely spinning and getting after his priorities when we closed up shop for tonight," said Livermore, adding that Miller entered the building and conferred briefly with Esper before he began distributing taskers to staff. "I would have expected nothing less from him."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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