For Next U.S. Commander In Afghanistan, 'This Is About Protecting U.S. Citizens'

Jun 20, 2018
Originally published on June 21, 2018 10:30 am

Just as darkness fell, Capt. Austin S. "Scott" Miller was hunkered down in a building in Mogadishu, Somalia, together with his soldiers from the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force.

It was Oct. 3, 1993, and a Black Hawk helicopter had just been downed by local militants in the battle of Mogadishu, what would become the core of the book and movie Black Hawk Down. Miller was awarded a Bronze Star with a valor device for the nearly day-long battle that left 18 Americans dead and 73 wounded — including Miller.

"What you have to figure out is how to work your way through it," Miller told a reunion of those soldiers three years ago, according to the Columbus, Ga., Ledger-Enquirer. "I will tell you, I never thought we would get overrun. I know there were some people there who thought we were close to getting overrun. I never thought that, not with birds coming into the zone putting rockets in 10 or 15 feet away from us."

Now, Miller is getting ready to work his way through something else: the war in Afghanistan. The three-star lieutenant general is expected to be approved by the Senate for another star and take over from Gen. John "Mick" W. Nicholson Jr. as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Miller, a 57-year-old West Point graduate, has spent much of his career with Special Operators, working in the shadows on battlefields that include Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, he was commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, which includes Delta Force and SEAL Team 6.

But not all of his career has been in the shadows. Some of it has been in the spotlight.

Miller had a role in the training of the first two women to make it through the Army's arduous Ranger training back in 2015, pushing back against charges that the training had been softened so women could compete. He called those charges "the nonsense on the Internet."

"Ladies and gentlemen," Miller said at the 2015 graduation ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., "standards are still the same ... a 5-mile run is still a 5-mile run. Standards do not change. A 12-mile march is still a 12-mile march."

"When I shake your hand, I know there's something behind that handshake. Rangers lead the way," Miller said.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday for his confirmation hearing, Miller said he couldn't guarantee a timeline for removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, nearly 17 years after the U.S. invasion to overthrow the Taliban.

He said the two-pronged U.S. mission continues: training Afghan troops and going after terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State together with Afghan commandos. Like the eight generals who have preceded him, Miller said the U.S. must prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorists who could mount attacks against the United States.

"This is about protecting U.S. citizens," he told the senators, "when you go right to the heart of the issue."

Miller's appointment comes after President Trump has come up with a new strategy for Afghanistan, which includes 1,000 more U.S. troops to train the Afghans, including some who will be closer to the front lines, and placing more pressure on Pakistan to deny safe havens to the Taliban and their allies, the Haqqani Network.

Moreover, recently the U.S. has indicated willingness to take part in talks with the Taliban, even about the future of U.S. forces, which the Taliban insist must withdraw from Afghanistan.

During a short cease-fire last week put forward by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani — agreed to by U.S. forces and, for three days, by the Taliban — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put out this statement on Saturday:

"As President Ghani emphasized in his statement to the Afghan people," Pompeo said, "peace talks by necessity would include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces. The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.... The United States stands ready to work with the Afghan government, the Taliban, and all the people of Afghanistan to reach a peace agreement and political settlement that brings a permanent end to this war."

At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Miller echoed the longstanding comment by his predecessors and other U.S. officials that only a political solution can bring Afghanistan's violence to an end.

"NATO, U.S., and Afghan efforts continue to ensure the Taliban cannot win militarily," Miller said. "However, military pressure alone is not sufficient to achieve a political solution to the Afghan conflict. Diplomatic and social pressure are also necessary."

But a permanent end in the fighting does not seem to be anywhere in sight. The Taliban have gained ground, U.S. airstrikes have spiked to put pressure on the group to negotiate, and civilian casualties have increased — partly due to those airstrikes but mostly because of Taliban attacks, and some ISIS attacks.

At the hearing, there was widespread praise for Miller from lawmakers, though there was also skepticism about the way forward in Afghanistan.

Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine, asked how the U.S. can expect any change in Afghanistan with some 15,000 U.S. troops, noting there were 100,000 under President Obama.

"Nothing seems to change. What's going to change in the next two years or three years?" King asked.

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts pointed out that many of the U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have said the U.S. has finally "turned the corner" in the war.

"We've supposedly turned the corner so many times that it seems now we're going in circles," Warren said. "So let me just ask you, do you envision turning another corner during your tenure as commander? After 17 years of war, what are you going to do differently to bring this conflict to an end?"

Miller replied by acknowledging the length of the war, saying, "That's generational."

"I can't guarantee you a timeline or an end date — I know that going into this position — or offer, necessarily, a turning point, unless there is one," Miller said, "unless there's something to report back and something has changed."

Miller looked over his shoulder at one point during the hearing, gesturing to his son, Army 2nd Lt. Austin Miller of the 82nd Airborne Division.

"This young guy sitting behind me," the general said, "I never anticipated that his cohort would be in a position to deploy [to Afghanistan] as I sat there in 2001 and looked at this."

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