KABUL, Afghanistan — Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller said on a recent trip to Afghanistan that American special operations forces will likely be the “last out” of Afghanistan.
Miller told reporters traveling with him on the trip, including one from Breitbart News, that during the trip, he talked “extensively” with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan about the role of U.S. special operators as the overall U.S. troop presence goes to 2,500 by January 15 — the lowest number of U.S. forces in the country in nearly 20 years.
“Special operations, I think, will be the last folks out. They’ll continue to maintain counterterrorism pressure on al-Qaeda and affiliates and also provide support to Afghan national security forces. I actually walked out of there pretty confident we’re in a right stance right now,” he said.
During the visit, he went to Camp Morehead, a base for U.S. and Afghan commandos near Kabul. He said he knew he knew he would get the “real deal” from U.S. special operators there. “Their smartass comments and insights led me to the conclusion that we’re in a good place,” he said.
The U.S. is conducting two missions in Afghanistan — a train and advise mission to build the capacity of Afghan security forces and a counterterrorism mission to go after al-Qaeda and other terrorists to ensure they do not use Afghanistan to launch another 9/11-style attack against American again.
But Miller also acknowledged the high toll the war has taken on special operators, who have deployed nearly non-stop throughout the nearly two-decade war in addition to Iraq and Syria. Miller was himself one of the first couple hundred Green Berets on the ground in Afghanistan at beginning of the war. He said in a response to a question from Breitbart News:
I think if the numbers are told, per capita they’ve had more casualties, and they’ve probably spent more times overseas. And you know, all these folks — men and women — are type triple A, and they just want to be where the action is. But you know the challenge and the stress it puts on families is a really a great concern to me, and it’s like your greatest strength is your greatest weakness, right? Your commitment and all that. I really just worry about about their families, and my thoughts and prayers, etc., with that. And you know that’s why we’re here. Hopefully, next Christmas we’re not having this conversation about a whole bunch of people being away from the holidays again.
He recalled coming home from Afghanistan in March 2012 — on his daughter’s birthday — and then going back to work the next day to plan the war in Iraq.
At the same time, he said that if the war had stayed one fought by special operations forces, there would perhaps have been a different and more successful outcome.
“I always felt we made a huge strategic error by expanding the war. I thought this was the war for special operations,” he said.
Apart from direct action targeting terrorists, special operations units in Afghanistan have at times throughout the war teamed up with civilian experts as part of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) to work with Afghan locals, police, and military forces to stabilize Afghanistan on a village level, with some success.
“I just personally thought … if we were smart strategically, Afghanistan would always have been a special-operations-force-diplomatic-PRT-type irregular-warfare theater,” he said.
“I think we probably would have had a little different outcome in Afghanistan if we would have maintained what we were doing then and what we’re doing now,” he said.
He said he believes U.S. forces “gave it our all” in Afghanistan, and he wants to use his time as defense secretary to address concerns from military families.
“I want to try to accelerate, bring more attention to handling our Gold Star families,” he said. “That’s really where we’re focused.”