Event Summary by Ruthie Kesri
On Thursday, April 6, General Austin Scott Miller spoke at the Sanford School of Public Policy. The discussion was moderated by Professor Peter Feaver and focused on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as General Miller’s nearly 40 years of experience in uniform, most recently as the final commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and United States Forces-Afghanistan and the last 4-star general in Afghanistan.
To begin, General Miller underscored that he loved “every minute” of his service and expressed his belief that for him, people and purpose will always outweigh any monetary or other more superficial aspects of his work. He then pivoted to an analysis of the factors needed in strong leadership: a risk assessment, communication, and a small do-say gap. In his analysis, there are three main components of risk: tactical, operational, and strategic. He maintained the United States lost the risk calculation in Afghanistan, but this calculation was arguably lost far before August 26.
Through the entirety of the US’ time in Afghanistan, General Miller noted the express mission of US forces evolved, with the 2018 mission to ‘safeguard the US’ very different than the initial invasion. With Osama bin Laden gone, much of the US’ role revolved around combatting ISIS in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban. However, he expressed disdain for the February 2020 negotiated settlement, which was characterized by poor risk management, a lack of political will to adjust, a lack of whole-of-government approach, and a lack of a conditions-based approach. Accordingly, the Taliban understood the US was heading toward complete withdrawal and could adjust accordingly.
Even before the withdrawal, General Miller maintained the US had strong assets in Afghanistan with around 4500 troops. He also noted he was the only general not to ask for more troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, he retroactively recommended staying at 2500 with NATO troops to maintain current capabilities. When asked his reaction to the withdrawal, he stated plainly that he does not make value judgements of POTUS decisions. In the same vein, he never considered resigning as the troops cannot resign. Pushing for an accelerated departure was the logical step in a quickly deteriorating military landscape.
During the Q&A, General Miller responded to a wide variety of questions, ranging from the perspectives of Afghan civilians, Afghan military capacity, China, and information warfare. Particularly thought-provoking was General Miller’s assertion that the US military is not a statebuilding force. Rather, he explained NGOs and Afghans themselves must build their state. While the US has certainly attempted nationbuilding and may very well continue to do so over and over again, this understanding is key to rectifying our mistakes in Afghanistan.