The Trump administration is putting its own aggressive stamp on the Afghanistan War by tapping a career Special Forces operative to lead American troops there.
The White House pick of Army Lt. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, who ran the secretive Joint Special Operations Command before he was pegged for the top job in Afghanistan, suggests that Pentagon and administration officials are girding for a violent and unpredictable period in the 17-year-old war.
Gen. Miller’s appointment in some ways harks back to President Obama’s 2009 installation of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to oversee the conflict, top analysts say.
Gen. McChrystal, who was relieved of his command after a public spat with Obama administration officials, also led the storied Joint Special Operations Command before taking the reins in Kabul.
Unlike Gen. McChrystal, however, Gen. Miller will be operating with looser rules of engagement approved by President Trump that may make it easier to attack insurgent targets.
Gen. Miller’s extensive operational and command experience in Afghanistan, going back to when the Army Special Forces officer led the Obama-era Afghanistan-Pakistan Coordination Cell at the Pentagon in 2009, makes the special operations veteran a good fit to usher in the Trump era of the longest war in U.S. history, some defense analysts say.
During his years with the teams, Gen. Miller has “learned the best of the Special Forces lessons, which is not just the application of violence” but the “intelligent application of force” to leverage the necessary political and diplomatic solutions to end the war at the negotiating table, said David Sedney, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 to 2013.
Fighting for peace
The Trump administration has relaxed rules of engagement in Afghanistan in response to growing threats from the Taliban and other insurgent groups and has coupled that with a surge of 3,000 more U.S. troops and additional American firepower into the country — the linchpin in the White House’s regional strategy announced in August.
Gen. Miller’s appointment may foreshadow a major increase in U.S. Special Forces raids, said Michael Pregent, a former intelligence officer specializing in the Middle East and North Africa.
“With Miller going into this environment, he’s the right guy for it because this is a ‘Kill bad guys’ time again in Afghanistan,” he said. “We’ve conducted more aggressive operations in Afghanistan, and we haven’t put a timeline on it. That’s important,” said Mr. Pregent, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
But the Trump administration has not abandoned the broader diplomatic aim of trying to bring about real peace talks with Taliban leaders, said Javid Ahmad, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies Afghanistan extensively.
“The strategy would likely remain intact, aimed at nudging the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Also a change in U.S. tactics … more targeted strikes, special operation raids, etc., is likely to be driven by the conditions on the ground,” he said.
Gen. John Nicholson, the current commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Wednesday that secret negotiations have begun with at least some Taliban leaders on a proposed cease-fire, although whether the Taliban contacts speak for the entire insurgent movement is an open question.
“A lot of the diplomatic activity and dialogue is occurring off the stage, and it’s occurring at multiple levels,” Gen. Nicholson said in a teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon.
“Violence and progress can coexist, and that’s what we’re seeing,” he said. “We’ve seen this in other conflicts … where the two sides were talking about peace at the same time that they were fighting each other on the battlefield.”
Using more aggressive U.S. military action as an impetus for real peace talks is a delicate balancing act that Gen. Miller has mastered in his years working and fighting in Afghanistan, Mr. Sedney said.
“He is a very thoughtful guy [and] a very analytical person,” Mr. Sedney said of Gen. Miller, with whom he worked closely during the two-star general’s stint as head of all U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan in 2013.
“He understands things well beyond the caricature of the Special Forces’ gung-ho attitude,” Mr. Sedney said.
The nomination, which will elevate Gen. Miller to a four-star general, has been made amid a brutal spate of Taliban terrorist attacks and high-profile U.S. military operations that have bloodied both sides during this year’s fighting season.
Rash of violence
Gen. Nicholson announced Wednesday that American forces had killed over 50 senior and midlevel commanders within the Taliban faction in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
Top leaders with the Helmand faction were reportedly gathered in the province’s Musa Qala district on May 24 to discuss their participation in the brief takeover of the capital of western Afghanistan’s Farah province this month. U.S. and Afghan intelligence tracked the group’s movements from the Farah capital to the rendezvous point in Helmand when a barrage of U.S. rockets took out the group, Gen. Nicholson told reporters in the teleconference from Kabul.
Among the dead was Mullah Shah Wali, the Taliban shadow deputy governor for Helmand and commander the group’s special forces wing, said. Gen. Nicholson. It was one of the largest counterterrorism strikes by American troops since last year’s bombing of an Islamic State compound in eastern Nangarhar province, where U.S. warplanes dropped the “Mother of All Bombs” on the Islamic State tunnel complex.
News of the Musa Qala operation came as Taliban fighters launched one of their most brazen attacks on the Afghan capital since the beginning of this year’s fighting season.
On Wednesday, 10 Taliban fighters and suicide bombers, disguised as U.S. troops, launched an attack on the Afghan Interior Ministry compound in central Kabul. The attack was eventually put down and all the Taliban fighters were killed by national police and counterterrorism forces, but not before an Afghan soldier was killed as well, Gen. Nicholson said.