Miller says last US troops in Afghanistan will be special operations forces

A U.S. soldier looks out the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as it flies over Kabul on the way to Resolute Support Headquarters on Dec. 22, 2020.


By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 23, 2020

KABUL, Afghanistan — Special operations forces were the first deployed in the war in Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago and likely will be the last troops to leave the country, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said after visiting U.S. forces and American military leadership in Afghanistan on Tuesday.

Miller traveled to Camp Morehead located south of Kabul, where U.S. special operations forces train Afghan commandos, to hear from troops about the war from the ground.

“I went there on purpose because I’m going to get the real deal from these guys. And their smart-ass comments and their insights led me to the conclusion we’re in a good place,” Miller said, without going into detail.

During his visit to Afghanistan ahead of the holidays, Miller met with Army Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to discuss the U.S. commitment to that country’s security and the ongoing withdrawal of roughly 2,500 U.S. troops by Jan. 15.

Miller said he had talked to Gen. Miller “extensively” about the work special operations troops will conduct in the next couple of months as all U.S. forces are expected to leave the country by May 2021. They will likely be the last U.S. forces in the country to continue counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and support the Afghan security forces, he said.

Miller was a former soldier of the 5th Special Forces Group and among the first soldiers in Afghanistan in 2001. He said he “always felt we made a huge strategic error by expanding the war” beyond special operations forces and then making them, including him, go to Iraq for the start of that war.

“I thought special operations and irregular warfare capability should have stayed in Afghanistan. [For] Iraq, the decision was made to do that. It should have been big Army, big Air Force…and I think we probably would have had a little different outcome in Afghanistan if we would have done -- maintained what we were doing then and are doing now,” Miller said to reporters on the trip with him.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down for the United States, Miller said the takeaway for the military is about strategy.

“I think we gave it our all, we sure did. I think there’s some cautionary strategic lessons that I don’t know whether the military will learn them or not,” he said without specifying what those lessons are.

As for the Afghan forces, Miller said he heard during the trip that “the Afghan security forces are a lot more capable than frankly what I came in thinking they were.” He added the United States can still inflict damage on the Taliban, if necessary.

During a luncheon at Hamid Karzai International Airport before his meetings with U.S. and Afghan leaders, Miller told U.S. troops and civilians about the importance of their work for the drawdown.

“We’re supposed to be out by May 2021, y’all. That’s the agreement, right? This mission is really the one that’s going to get us to a place where we can depart with leaving behind a security capability that can survive whatever comes next,” he said.

Miller told the luncheon audience that he was there to thank Afghan leadership for their work and express a hope for a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

“[Ghani’s] in a tough position but I think he holds the keys to — the war winding down, it’s hard you know. It’s never easy. Very rarely do you have total victory like you did in World War II. Most of these insurgencies… gets a little rough towards the end and everybody has to come together and compromise,” Miller said.

The end of the war in Afghanistan is also closing a chapter for the special operations community, which has endured a large amount of stress, casualties and time overseas during the past 19 years, according to Miller. While the troops are eager to “be where the action is,” he said the stress and challenges that these deployments has on their families “has been really of great concern to me.”

“That’s why we’re here. Hopefully next Christmas we’re not having this conversation about a whole bunch of people being away from home for the holidays again,” Miller said.

Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller is greeted at Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul by its commander, Army Gen. Scott Miller, Dec. 22, 2020. Secretary Miller visited Afghanistan to discuss the ongoing support for the country's security as well as learn more about the drawdown efforts of troops.