In Afghanistan, Hoping the 17th General is the Charm
Lieutenant General Austin “Scott” Miller is the quintessential United States Army officer. He is extraordinarily dedicated, intensely focused on the missions assigned to him, and very brave.
Unfortunately, all that superior experience may be lost on his next mission: command of all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, a graveyard not only of empires, but American military strategy, policy, and diplomacy over the last 17 years.
From the moment he graduated from the West Point Military Academy in 1983, Miller has been immersed in the world of special operations. He served in the Army Rangers and was inducted into the elite Delta Force, earning a Bronze Star for leading the infamous extraction mission in Mogadishu, Somalia. Eight years later, Miller was one of the first Americans on the ground in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. He took command of Delta Force in 2005, an especially bloody time in Iraq. And he ascended to the top of the special operations community in 2016 as head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) headquarters, which was once infamous for manhunting and so-called enhanced interrogation tactics under General Stanley McChrystal (who himself tried and failed to turn things around in Afghanistan during the Obama administration).
According to reports published over the last week, Miller will take on this new command soon, as President Donald Trump is increasing the U.S. force level on the ground by about 4,000 troops. A senior military source who has since retired told TAC that Miller’s leadership capabilities, past experience in Afghanistan, and long-term relationships with Afghan military and police officials is the ideal combination at this point in the war—though considering his 16 predecessors had varying “ideal” qualities suitable to the task, it’s hard to believe victory can come down to one man anymore.
The White House certainly hopes this is the case. But nine months after President Trump addressed the American people on his updated South Asia strategy, the indicators in Afghanistan are about as depressing as they’ve ever been. While commanders on the ground ritualistically cite progress to the Pentagon Press Corps, government watchdogs have only grim metrics to share. In his last quarterly report, John Sopko—the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction—assessed that over a third of the Afghan population is outside of Kabul’s control, and only 56.3 percent of the country’s districts can be categorized as Afghan-controlled or influenced. In effect, the insurgency controls the most terrain since the special inspector general started keeping records.
The Afghan army and national police, despite slow improvements in field operations, remain besieged by a multitude of internal problems. The Defense Department’s inspector general overseeing Operation Freedom Sentinel has documented troubling attribution issues within the Afghan national security forces—so much so that the combined force is almost 39,000 personnel short of its authorized level.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have no intention of negotiating with the Afghan government. Insurgent groups fortunate enough to have support from a state sponsor don’t tend to talk about reintegration or peace with the government they are trying to overthrow. The Taliban is one such group, courtesy of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, which continues to view them as a strategic hedge against Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Despite U.S. Air Force sorties far exceeding 2016 levels, the Taliban remains a potent fighting force able to launch effective operations against Afghan troops who heavily depend on air corridors for resupply. Earlier this month, Taliban fighters swept into the capital city of Farah province with little resistance from government forces. Although Kabul quickly retook the city, the Afghans had to request air support from the U.S. It was yet another sign that despite over $78 billion in American taxpayer money, the Afghan army is still unable to defend its country without significant air and logistical support from Washington.
It will be up to Lieutenant General Miller to try and salvage the situation and implement a war strategy that remains as basic as it is ineffective: hammer the Taliban across a wider array of targets to bloody them into a conflict-ending peace settlement. Why the Taliban would even think about coming to the table when they can rely on neighboring Pakistan for sanctuary has never been sufficiently explained by the White House and Pentagon.
Sadly, we’ve now seen this movie over and over again for over a decade and a half. In the first scene, a decorated general is appointed by the president to turn the war around. Act II involves a few glowing profiles in the media about the new commander’s unique traits as a thinker, an innovator, and a warfighter. The American people are told that perhaps this particular commanding officer will be the one to sprinkle fairy dust over the war and transform an unwinnable conflict into something the White House can call a victory.
It wasn’t too long ago when General McChrystal was giving interviews to 60 Minutes onboard his helicopter talking about his “government in a box” initiative and stressing the absolute imperative of reconnecting the Afghan population to their government. After that, General David Petraeus, hailed as the most influential officer of his generation, was tapped by President Obama as McChrystal’s replacement and popularized by commentators and lawmakers as America’s last, best hope to win a war that was going in the wrong direction. More recently, the Washington Post published a profile on now-outgoing commander John Nicholson as the American officer who would use his deep understanding of Afghan society and culture to ride the U.S. to success.
While we should wish him the best, we should also be skeptical that Miller will be able to accomplish what all 16 of his prior commanding generals could not: an Afghanistan that is self-sustaining, politically stable, and terror-free. Even the most experienced, tenacious, no-nonsense, cigar-chomping general can fail when given an impossible mission.
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.