KABUL, Afghanistan -- Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller jokes that he was the very last of the first 200 U.S. special operations soldiers to invade Afghanistan in December 2001 -- something like landing on Omaha Beach a second before the stroke of midnight on D-Day.
That's a bit of an undersell, though. While he was a company commander with the 5th Special Forces Group for the invasion, a "Horse Soldier" who never mounted a horse, he did end up playing a historic role. On Dec. 5, 2001, when an errant Air Force munition hit the town of Tarin Kowt, killing U.S. and Afghan troops and wounding Afghan President Hamid Karzai,
Miller, then a major, led a quick-reaction force into the region, relieving the soldiers on the ground and supporting recovery efforts.
In any case, his role as he landed in Afghanistan's capital Dec. 22 for the first time since 2007 felt poetic: He was there to close down the 19-year fight and summon the last troops home.
"I feel like the circle's complete," he told reporters traveling with him. "This was the first time I was in combat. ... Now to be here, to see the contours now with the war winding down, it's hugely, I don't want to say emotional, but pretty significant."
Miller was suddenly elevated from a comparatively low-profile position as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center to become acting head of the Pentagon after President Donald Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Nov. 9, in the wake of the election. The suddenness and timing of the move drew protests from critics and sparked some outrage on Capitol Hill, particularly when, 12 days later, Miller announced a tight new timeline for troop withdrawal: a drawdown from 4,500 U.S. service members in Afghanistan to just 2,500 by mid-January. The same announcement included a plan to withdraw 2,200 troops from Iraq -- leaving 2,500 -- by the same deadline.
Miller makes clear that he was moved into his role to execute policy, and the president's policy now is to draw down the war. A U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February stipulates a complete withdrawal of troops by May 2021. That's contingent, however, on the Taliban upholding the terms of the agreement, including a halt in attacks on coalition forces and an overall reduction in violence. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has already complained that the Taliban is not doing enough to curb violence in highly populated areas.
Those disputing the tight new withdrawal timeline, including a number of key members of Trump's own party, cite fears that leaving too abruptly will create a new vacuum for terror groups to exploit and add instability to a nation still regularly rocked by violence. Lawmakers including Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah have argued the timing of the new push is deeply political, a final effort for Trump to cement his legacy before he leaves office. A deadline also places pressure on historic peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, set to resume in January after several stalls and lengthy efforts to set terms of procedure.
For his part, Miller made his opinions known on the war before being named as acting SecDef, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that al-Qaida is on the verge of collapse and the U.S. should focus on ending the conflict while maintaining pressure on surviving terrorist elements.
"We did not seek or desire the war the terrorists started," he wrote. "But we will end the war on our terms."
There's no question he believes getting out now is the right thing to do, and he indicates that he thinks the U.S. could have found a cleaner resolution if it had not become so deeply mired in the fight.
"I always felt we made a huge strategic error by expanding the war. I felt this was the war for special operations," Miller said following his single-day visit to Afghanistan. "It was a small footprint, and I just personally thought, if we were smart strategically, Afghanistan would always be the special operations force, diplomatic [provincial reconstruction team]-type irregular warfare theater."
Planning for the Iraq invasion close on the heels of that first deployment to Afghanistan complicated things, Miller believes; a portion of the special operations focus shifted there and Afghanistan became a larger, big-military fight.
"I think probably we would have had a little different outcome in Afghanistan if we had maintained what we were doing then and are doing now," he said.
Of course, it's not the first time the U.S. has attempted to bring the fight in Afghanistan to a close. The Defense Department's formal combat operation, Operation Enduring Freedom, concluded at the end of 2014 with the pullout of some 20,000 troops, leaving a force of just under 10,000, and the closure of major bases including Camp Eggers in Kabul and Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province.
As the years passed after, veterans who fought in locations such as Helmand's Marjah and Sangin regions watched in dismay as gains were erased and checkpoints held by Afghan forces were overrun by the Taliban.
The cost of fighting terror groups and insurgents in Afghanistan continues to be extraordinarily high for the Afghan military. While the U.S.-led coalition waging the war has sustained 3,502 total casualties over two decades, it's estimated that 7,000 Afghan security forces were killed last year alone.
But Miller said he was heartened by what he observed and what he heard from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Ghani's palace in Kabul during bilateral talks Dec. 22.
"Everything I heard from not just the Afghans but from everybody else is, the Afghan security forces are a lot more capable, and I frankly came in thinking they weren't," he said. "Ghani and [Vice President Amrullah Saleh] were clear about that. ... They have no vested interest, probably, in covering their perspective. And then [U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Commander] Gen. [Scott] Miller was pretty clear that we still have the capability to do a lot of damage, and the Taliban need damage put on them."
When he was first in Afghanistan as an Army officer, Miller said, the devastation in the nation's capital was staggering.
"The entire southern part of the city was leveled from the civil war. ... I've never seen anything like southern Kabul," he said. "And now there are two million people there vs. 200,000 [then]. I was like, I didn't recognize the place, frankly."
Special operations will be the last contingent to leave Afghanistan, he said, and the U.S. intends to maintain an air support role even as troops depart.
"Our competitive advantage as the United States military is our control of the air, and I think we can do a lot of good in this regard, even if we don't have a large physical presence on the ground," he said.
Officials with the NATO-led Resolute Support mission, also commanded by Gen. Miller, declined to specify which bases were closing and consolidating to develop what a defense official called a "smaller constellation" of outposts maintained by a slimmed-down force. At least 10 bases have closed since the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, although it's unclear where the most recent troop withdrawals have taken place.
Roughly 4,000 U.S. troops remain on the ground, down about 500 since the most recent withdrawal announcement. The Army's 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade, or SFAB, once 1,000 strong in Afghanistan, now has 38 members remaining in country. Miller said that's the SFAB concept working as it should; the SFAB members who are left hold highly specialized positions specially suited to the task at hand of handing off capabilities to Afghan security forces.
In talks with Ghani, attended also by Gen. Miller; U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ross Wilson; and Lt. Gen. Yasin Zia, the Afghan equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Miller expressed his condolences on recent attacks, which included a car bomb that killed nine in Kabul just days before.
"You know, it's really a reminder that ... the Afghan people are those that have paid the price to bear the greatest burden of this violence," he said.
He also hailed the progress he'd seen.
"The growth is just really, really exceptional, and a testament to the spirit of the Afghan people," he said.
Miller spent several hours with troops, meeting with a Kabul-based contingent including contractors, SFAB members and other skill specialists during an off-the record luncheon.
"I'm the guy who is drawing it down to 2,500 on the president's behalf. I firmly believe that's the right thing to do," Miller said. "I wanted to come out here and give you the chance to tell me what it looks like on the ground. ... This mission is really the one that's going to get us to a place where we can depart, leaving behind a security capability that can survive whatever comes next. And obviously the hope is to get a doggone peace agreement here."
While much of Pentagon planning centers on the future prospect of great-power competition with near-peer nations like Russia and China, Miller emphasized the significance of what the small contingent of remaining U.S. troops was doing to transition and close down the fight.
"You guys aren't forgotten; you're the main effort," he said.
At the luncheon, and at a later meeting with special operations soldiers at Camp Morehead in Wardak province, Miller challenged the troops to provide him with a picture of the "roses and thorns" -- their greatest challenges and successes. He came away, he said, more encouraged than he expected to be and with greater hope for some of the most challenging transitions, such as shifting IT capabilities and contracting systems to Afghan control. As a veteran of special operations, Miller said he intentionally sought feedback from the soldiers at Morehead, knowing they wouldn't hold back.
"I went there on purpose because I'm going to get the real deal from these guys," he said. "And their smart-ass comments and their insights led me to the conclusion we're in a good place."
The U.S. blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan over the last 19 years is staggering -- the financial cost, including health care and benefits for war veterans, now tops $2 trillion, according to a Brown University estimate. While the Defense Department does not keep an official estimate of how many Americans have deployed to Afghanistan, The Washington Post used Pentagon data to calculate that there were some 775,000 veterans of that war as of September 2019. U.S. casualties total roughly 2,400 killed in action, and well over 20,000 wounded in action. Signature wounds of the war include traumatic brain injury and limb loss, both often due to the improvised explosive devices used by insurgents to create destruction.
Of note, no Americans have been killed in Afghanistan since Feb. 8, when Army Sgts. 1st Class Javier Jaguar Gutierrez and Antonio Rey Rodriguez died by hostile fire in Nangarhar province, to the east. That was prior to the U.S.-Taliban agreement; it has now been the longest stretch without a U.S. combat death since the beginning of the war.
The prospect of risking the erasure of hard-fought gains in a country notoriously resistant to outside change is troubling, and some defense scholars, including retired Gen. Jack Keane, have warned that that is what is at stake in withdrawal.
But for Miller, the bottom line is that the fight must end -- not with triumphalism, but with certain closure. America is not in the business of forever wars, he has said.
Miller is unlikely to still be in the role of defense secretary to see U.S. troop strength drop below 2,500. President-elect Joe Biden is set to be sworn in Jan. 20 and has stated his intent to nominate former Army Gen. Lloyd Austin for defense secretary. While Biden has said he supports drawing down in Afghanistan, it's possible he will act to slow the departure timeline. Congress is also attempting to thwart rapid withdrawal efforts; a provision in the 2021 defense policy bill, now awaiting Trump's signature, would block funding for the troop reduction.
Miller's current brief is clear, however. In a message specifically directed to the special operations community, he talked about the long-term cost to troops and families to wage what he'd earlier described as America's only current war.
"I think if the numbers are told, per capita, they've had more casualties, and they've probably spent more time overseas. ... The stress it puts on families has been really a great concern to me," he said. " ... And you know, that's why we're here. Hopefully, next Christmas, we're not having a conversation about a whole bunch of people being away from home for the holidays again."
Asked what this costly two-decade war will mean to the U.S. military in retrospect, Miller is somewhat at a loss.
"I don't know," he said. "I think we gave it our all, we sure did. I think there's some cautionary strategic lessons; I don't know if we'll learn them or not."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.