After two decades of fighting and thousands of American casualties, the United States has achieved only a “strategic stalemate” with the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the nation’s top military officer said Wednesday, in a frank assessment of the current situation even as President Trump oversees a sharp drawdown of U.S. forces there.
The mixed assessment came from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley and were his most extensive comments to date following November’s elections and Mr. Trump’s subsequent dismissal of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and a number of top Pentagon policymakers.
“We believe that now after 20 years — two decades of consistent effort there — we’ve achieved a modicum of success,” Gen. Milley said during an online discussion sponsored by the Brookings Institution think tank.
He spoke as another stalemate was deepening for the Pentagon on Capitol Hill, where a new veto threat from President Trump threatened to derail a bipartisan push to pass the massive annual National Defense Authorization Act, which sets budget goals and policy priorities for the Pentagon for the coming year.
Mr. Trump, who previously demanded the $740.5 billion bill drop a provision renaming military bases honoring Confederate figures, on Wednesday said he was also prepared to veto the package if an unrelated measure on the legal responsibility of social media firms to police their content was not inserted.
Even Senate Armed Services Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, broke with Mr. Trump on his latest demand, saying he supported the idea but that it did not belong in the NDAA.
The “only difference of opinion that I have is I don’t want it on this bill because we can’t have a bill with that language on it,” Mr. Inhofe told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Esper and Gen. Milley were widely seen as skeptical of Mr. Trump’s accelerated Afghan withdrawal plans, even as talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul are finally getting underway. The two sides on Wednesday agreed on a formal framework for talks, but U.S. commanders say they have yet to see the violence come down or the Taliban break decisively with international terror groups such as al Qaeda and Islamic State.
Gen. Milley told the Brookings forum that neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban has been able to gain a decisive military edge in recent years.
The only way for the bloodshed to end in a manner that is “somewhat in alignment with U.S. national security interests” is through a negotiated settlement, he said.
“That’s very odious for many people to think that we’re going to negotiate with someone like the Taliban,” the general said. But he noted that “the most common way that insurgencies end is through a negotiated power-sharing settlement.”
The U.S. will reduce its military presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 by January 15, down from over 12,000 at the beginning of 2020. Gen. Milley wouldn’t say which U.S. bases in Afghanistan are likely to be shuttered as a result of the drawdown. “Any further decision after that will come from the next administration,” Gen. Milley said.
Presumed President-elect Joseph R. Biden has yet to name his pick for defense secretary, so Gen. Milley steered well clear of the political situation during Wednesday’s hour-long talk.
He was more pointed at last month’s opening ceremony of the National Army Museum at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, stressing the military’s nonpartisan character following a string of clashes with the Trump White House over the handling of nationwide racial justice protests this summer.
“We do not take an oath to a king or queen, a tyrant or a dictator,” Gen. Milley said then. “We do not take an oath to an individual. We do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.”
The NDAA is shaping up as one of the last military policy battles of the Trump administration before Mr. Biden is sworn in Jan. 20. The bill traditionally has bipartisan support, and failure to pass it in the current lame duck session would mean a heavy lift for Mr. Biden and Congress early in 2021.
Tuesday evening, Mr. Trump announce that he would veto the NDAA unless it includes language to repeal Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which provides protections to tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter for being sued for what is on their site. Mr. Trump and his allies have complained social media companies have abused the legal shield to disproportionately silence conservative voices.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, accused Mr. Trump of “trying to use the NDAA as a way to punish companies that he thinks are not pushing his propaganda.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, and retiring Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the panel’s ranking Republican, put out a joint statement Wednesday saying they had reached agreement on a final text and urged Mr. Trump to sign the bill as is.