Acting SecDef Chris Miller's First Message to the Military: It's Time to Leave Afghanistan

U.S. special operations service members conduct combat operations in support of Operation Resolute Support in Southeast Afghanistan, April 2019. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Jaerett Engeseth)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. special operations service members conduct combat operations in support of Operation Resolute Support in Southeast Afghanistan, April 2019. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Jaerett Engeseth)

After less than a week on the job, the Pentagon's new acting leader has issued his first public guidance to all Defense Department staff, including a pointed message: It's time to come home from Afghanistan.

Miller, a former "Horse Soldier" and special operations officer who was part of the first contingent of soldiers who entered Afghanistan in 2001, was pulled from his job as director of the National Counterterrorism Center to serve as acting defense secretary Nov. 9 after President Donald Trump fired SecDef Mark Esper.

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Esper's was the first of a rash of firings within the Defense Department and other agencies following Joe Biden's projected election win. Some have speculated Trump aims to sow instability ahead of the presidential transition; others suggest his installation of Miller and advisers including Douglas Macgregor, an outspoken critic of the war in Afghanistan, is part of a last-ditch effort to conclude the conflict before the end of the year.

In a two-page memo sent Friday and publicly released early Saturday morning, Miller calls the responsibility of acting SecDef "the greatest privilege of my professional life," second only to leading troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He called for a commitment to nonpartisanship, and set an optimistic vision of the tasks ahead, calling on staff to challenge paradigms and keep the DoD competitive amid strategic challenges. Then he got specific.

"As we prepare for the future. we remain committed to finishing the war that Al Qaida brought to our shores in 2001. This war isn't over. We are on the verge of defeating Al Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish," he wrote. "Indeed, this fight has been long, our sacrifices have been enormous. and many are weary of war - I'm one of them - but this is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role."

Miller's words echoed thoughts expressed in his Sept. 10 opinion column published in the Washington Post. In the piece, he said the end of the war on al-Qaida was in sight and the terrorist group was in crisis. He called for decisive efforts to crush the group before it could renew its strength, and said the U.S. would "end the war on our terms."

In his new memo, he emphasized the need to bring the fighting to an end, though he did not provide a timeline or offer guidance on how a withdrawal would take place. A transition in the war formerly known as Operation Enduring Freedom did take place on paper in late 2014, when the U.S. formally ended combat operations and assigned troops remaining in the country to act in advise-and-assist roles. However, since then, combat operations have continued, U.S. troops have been killed and regions of the country that the U.S. had departed -- such as Helmand province, Afghanistan -- have been the destination of new deployments.

"We are not a people of perpetual war - it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end," Miller said in his memo. "Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it's time to come home."

In October, Trump announced via tweet that all U.S. troops would be home from Afghanistan by Christmas. Later that month, however, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley challenged that statement, saying troop withdrawal would be conditions-based, and noting the U.S. was still looking for a cease-fire and planned peace deal between the Taliban and Afghan government.

Those who know Miller well from his time in Army special operations told earlier this month that it would be fitting for him to play a key role in ending the sprawling conflict known as the Global War on Terror, since he was present for the very beginning of the fight.

"For him, it sort of bookends his career, almost in a poetic sense," said retired Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a former member of 5th Special Forces Group who had served under Miller and spoke highly of his leadership. "You couldn't have a better person right now."

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

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