The changes could help define the endgame in America’s longest war, as Trump pushes for a swift withdrawal of remaining forces from Afghanistan in the weeks before inauguration on January 20 next year.
“In the historical sweep of the Pentagon, 70 days isn’t much,” said John Gans, who served as chief speechwriter under Defence Secretary Ash Carter. “But in the life of Mark Milley, 70 days is going to feel like a lifetime.”
The Twilight Zone
As presidents and parties change, military leaders often straddle administrations. But the events of recent days have generated alarm among many Pentagon officials.
“Chris Miller – where the hell did he come from?” one Pentagon official said. “It’s hard not to feel like there is an ulterior motive for their selection, and people recognise that.”
“It’s The Twilight Zone,” the official said. “No one knows what’s going to happen next.”
Some White House and Pentagon officials have argued that the United States should cut the size of the force in Afghanistan from about 5,000 to a small counter-terrorism force consisting of several hundred troops by the end of the year.
The issue is politically potent for Trump, who has argued for walking away from seemingly endless counterinsurgent conflicts. One senior White House official said Esper’s ouster was most directly a result of the opposition he, like military leaders, had expressed to Trump’s withdrawal plans.
“The biggest frustration with Trump was the troops not coming out,” the official said.
Endgame for America’s longest war
As violence surges in Afghanistan despite faltering peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the official said, the Pentagon remains resistant to an immediate exit, arguing that a hasty withdrawal would necessitate abandoning billions of dollars worth of military equipment and leave the Afghan government vulnerable to being overrun by militants.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien and other aides have told Trump that Milley is not listening to them on troop withdrawals, the official said.
The plan, proposed earlier this year, set a goal of getting down to a few hundred troops by May 2021, assuming the peace talks moved forward and conditions on the battlefield allowed for it.
But some top White House officials, including Trump, are pressing to accelerate that timeline even though peace talks do not appear to be progressing. For now, no decision has been made.
Another senior White House official involved in Afghanistan policy said that no drastic changes have been made to the Pentagon’s withdrawal plan. “The plan as briefed by the Pentagon over six months ago remains in effect,” said this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal planning.
At a recent appearance at Fort Bragg base in North Carolina, the President made it clear that he wanted to bring troops home from Afghanistan and Syria and focus on preparing for war with a major power such as China, a senior defence official said.
A test of loyalties
The showdown over Afghanistan will be a test for Milley, a blunt career soldier who seemed to easily connect with Trump, prompting the President to select him as chairman in 2018 over the advice of then-Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. Although Milley has been able to maintain a relationship with the President more successfully than Esper did, there have been signs of strain.
Milley and Esper opposed invoking the Insurrection Act, as Trump had suggested, to deploy active-duty troops on America’s streets to quell protests prompted by the police killing of George Floyd in May. For months afterward, Trump trained his fury over the disagreement on Esper, administration officials said.
Milley and Esper also appeared with Trump in June outside the White House after authorities forcibly cleared protesters from Lafayette Square ahead of a photo opportunity for Trump in front of a church, but Milley peeled off from the group and later issued an unusual public apology for being at the scene.
More recently, Milley appeared to get in a public spat with O’Brien on leaving Afghanistan, dismissing O’Brien’s statement about a more rapid timeline than the official plan calls for as “speculation.” O’Brien hit back several days later. “When I’m speaking I’m speaking for the president and I think that’s what the Pentagon is moving out and doing,” O’Brien said.
Adding to speculation about an exit from Afghanistan was news that Miller had appointed Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and Trump ally, as a senior adviser.
Macgregor, whose nomination to be the ambassador to Germany was derailed under scrutiny for his past comments about Muslims and Mexicans, has said in television interviews that Trump should ignore the Pentagon and withdraw remaining troops from Afghanistan.
Joseph Kernan, a former Navy SEAL who this week was asked to leave his position as the Pentagon’s top intelligence officer earlier than expected, said he did not believe the personnel changes were tied to the debate over Afghanistan. “I don’t think there’s a relationship between those two,” Kernan said.
“There were lots of deliberations on what was required in Afghanistan – large numbers all the way down to smaller numbers,” he said. “There was no definitive discussion that I’m aware of on what was going to be left.”
When it comes to the crunch
Milley’s handling of a potential rush of final decisions related to Afghanistan or the election will be crucial in the transition period, which security experts say are particularly vulnerable moments when adversaries can seek to exploit leadership changes. Potentially most charged for Milley, who has emphasised that the armed forces’ commitment to the Constitution above all else, would be any attempt to pull the military into Trump’s attempts to assert an electoral win.
“The last thing you want in national security is gaps and short-term changes that bounce back and forth,” said Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine Corps general who oversaw US Central Command. “You’re really jacking around the military if that happens.”
Retired Admiral James Stavridis, who served as supreme allied commander of NATO from 2009-2013, expressed confidence that Milley and the military leadership would “resolutely” stay out of politics and said they were standing by to work with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition teams to facilitate the turnover as soon as the Trump administration allows government agencies to do so.
“That it has not begun already is dangerous to our national security,” he said.
The Washington Post