The Last Commander

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On a cool and clear October day in 2018, General Austin “Scott” Miller looked out from his helicopter at a landscape that mingled beauty and mystery, the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush giving way to a sea of dun-colored desert the farther south they flew. It was a land, he knew, that a soldier or an entire army could get lost in.

Miller was just weeks into his job as the top commander of the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, but he and his senior leadership team had spent so many repeat deployments in Afghanistan over the previous two decades that the war could seem like a reunion, albeit one shadowed by tragedy. By the time he assumed command, some of the soldiers were the sons and daughters of old colleagues, young volunteers with no living memory of the terrorist attacks that brought America to this land two decades ago.

The operation in Afghanistan now was named Operation Resolute Support, and its mission had long since changed from U.S. troops directly fighting the Taliban to backstopping the Afghans’ own army and police. After 18 years of some level of American presence, the Taliban had been gaining power again, and the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul was struggling to maintain control of the country.

Miller was the latest of 18 officers from seven countries to command the overall NATO deployment in Afghanistan. The final nine of them had been American generals, but Miller’s experience was uniquely well-suited to the job in front of him. A former elite Delta Force officer, Miller had spent much of his career commanding the Pentagon’s secretive “black operations” troops as they hunted and fought terrorists in some of the most hostile corners of the globe. On earlier Afghan deployments, Miller had been part of a team that helped start an innovative program called Village Stability Operations, in which U.S. special forces worked as trainers and mentors to local police and other authorities in Afghanistan’s many far-flung villages.

The program put the Americans in direct, consistent contact with small Afghan communities. And, as Miller recalled in an interview, the more he learned about the complex tribal dynamics in Afghanistan, the more he realized how much he would never fully understand about the country he was charged with stabilizing.

That experience also gave him contacts with a deep network of Afghan security officials down to the district level. Probably none was more effective and charismatic than police General Abdul Raziq, a police commander in his early 30s to whom Miller was traveling to consult. Many Afghans considered Raziq the most powerful government official in the former Taliban headquarters of Kandahar, a historic crossroads and still a stronghold for the insurgency.

When Miller spoke that October with Raziq and Kandahar’s provincial governor, the discussion only reinforced his sense of alarm about the stability of Afghanistan. The Taliban had launched a new offensive as he took command that summer, and intelligence indicated that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul securely held just over half of the country’s 407 districts. A terrorist organization called IS-Khorasan—the local affiliate of the Islamic State—had launched a series of high-profile bombings that had killed hundreds of civilians inside Afghan cities. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani had demanded the resignation of his entire national security team, creating additional upheaval and uncertainty for an incoming U.S. commander.

After meeting with Raziq and the provincial governor at the governor’s compound, Miller and his entourage were waiting for their helicopter to take them back to Kabul. As Miller stepped away from the Afghan officials to talk with some U.S. soldiers nearby, a loud burst of automatic weapons fire erupted only a few yards away on the helicopter landing pad. Miller drew his pistol and crouched behind a vehicle and directed others to do the same. The shooter, a Taliban infiltrator working as a security guard, was quickly gunned down. When the gunfire stopped, the provincial governor was wounded, along with Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley and two other Americans. Two Afghan officials were dead, including Lt. Gen. Raziq.

It was clear to Miller that the U.S. needed a new approach, urgently.

“The killing of Raziq had a major impact on the psyche of the Afghans,” said Miller in an interview. “He had a larger-than-life reputation as this very anti-Taliban figure who was kind of invincible, and for many he was seen as the ‘Hero of Afghanistan.’ His death only exacerbated a very tenuous security situation.” As Miller put it: “My assessment was that the Taliban had seized the tactical initiative.”

Adopting ideas he’d absorbed commanding special forces in the fight against ISIS over the past few years, Miller quickly put into place a streamlined counterterrorism model of operations, using U.S. intelligence and precision airstrikes to help push back the Taliban, bolster Afghan forces and—crucially—drive Taliban leaders to make the necessary concessions in peace talks that had just begun the month before.

That deal, the Doha Agreement, was signed in February 2020. The U.S. agreed to withdraw all its troops by May 2021, and the Taliban agreed to make its own moves toward a sustainable peace.

All sides understood that time and patience for the long war in Afghanistan were running out in Washington. And as the U.S. military began to fly its troops out, stretching Miller’s resources thinner and thinner, the Taliban again went on the offensive. And instead of demanding that the Taliban honor their side of the agreement, President Joe Biden made the end official. Last April, he ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by no later than September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that drew the United States into its longest war.

The irony, in a war full of them, is that a commander almost uniquely qualified to fight it was instead ordered to walk America off the battlefield for good. And as helicopters and cargo planes rapidly moved U.S. troops and equipment out of bases in Afghanistan, Scott Miller has been charged with finding answers to the difficult questions the rapid American withdrawal has raised: Can Afghan security forces possibly hold without U.S. military advisers on the ground and U.S. helicopters and warplanes overhead? Can the Taliban be trusted in their promise not to let international terrorist groups like al Qaeda use the country as sanctuary from which to attack the West once again? Have the United States and its allies purchased enough progress in 20 years to avoid a repeat of Afghanistan’s 1990s civil war? With the Taliban on the rise again, what will become of those Afghans who put their faith in the U.S. and NATO enterprise, especially Afghan interpreters and civil society and women’s rights groups?

“Those questions weigh on you, and it’s not just me,” Miller said in an interview shortly before departing Afghanistan earlier this week. “There are a lot of other people in this ‘last rotation’ in Afghanistan that have served here on multiple deployments, and we all have relationships with the Afghan people … And even as we’re leaving, with the risk to the Afghan people and nation on the rise, I’ve been struck by how gracious they are towards us as we depart. So, we have felt a strong obligation to try and conduct this withdrawal in the right way, and not just to our Afghan partners. We feel that obligation to all those who served here, including those that served and went home wounded, and especially those who served and didn’t make it home.”

After recently vacating Bagram Air Base, the last and largest U.S. base in Afghanistan, Miller officially furled the mission flag and marked the symbolic end to Operation Resolute Support on July 12, the longest-serving U.S. combat commander. In a short farewell ceremony attended by many senior Afghan officials, Miller pledged that “the people of Afghanistan will be in my heart, and on my mind, for the rest of my life.”

Retired General Dave Perkins, Miller’s former boss as the head of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, knows something about the difficulty of the mission Miller was handed in April: Perkins helped spearhead the invasion of Iraq, and then eight years later he was tasked with helping to organize the withdrawal of all U.S. troops. Perkins said that Miller has had his hands full closing down forward operating bases, constantly redesigning a force protection scheme as his troop levels have dropped, maintaining the focus and morale of departing troops, all while trying his best to keep faith with the Afghan people.

“Scott Miller has never blinked an eye when given the hardest tasks, and he’s always had the discipline and commitment to do what he thinks is right, and that has meant doing his best to disengage in a way that the Afghan government doesn’t crumble, and people are not hanging onto our helicopters as they pull out,” said Perkins. “Because believe me, it’s a lot easier to invade a country than to leave it in an orderly manner.”

As of this writing, a force of roughly 650 U.S. troops now remains in-country to guard the U.S. Embassy and help secure the international airport in Kabul. Though President Biden last week pushed up the technical deadline for final withdrawal to August 31, Miller himself is now in transit back to the United States, and America’s longest war is, effectively, over.

In recent weeks, I’ve communicated with Miller in two in-depth phone interviews and a lengthy written correspondence and have spoken with a number of his peers and former mentors in the tight-knit community of senior U.S. military leaders and combatant commanders. What emerges is a picture of a preternaturally focused officer, one who avoids the media spotlight and publicity that some generals welcome. Many of his peers are convinced there was no one in uniform better qualified, by temperament or expertise in counterterrorism, to write the final chapter in America’s long post-9/11 wars.

Miller is known for a relatively quiet leadership style marked by careful listening, rather than the bluster and swagger of some senior officers. He is also famously well read, especially in military history; he’ll quote from memory General Ulysses S. Grant’s memos to his commanders on the eve of the Battle of Vicksburg, or Henry Kissinger’s musings from his memoir “Ending the Vietnam War.”

Miller’s career has seen him through a remarkable number of America’s most complex and difficult conflicts—and along the way he’s had a front-row seat to the steep costs of losing focus, or of wavering national commitment. As a 28-year-old Delta Force captain, he fought in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, in which 19 U.S. troops were killed; it was later made famous by the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” As a special operations lieutenant colonel in Afghanistan in 2001, Miller participated in what seemed at the time like a quick victory in helping topple the Taliban regime from power in a matter of weeks—and surrounding Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants in the Tora Bora cave complex. Then U.S. commanders naively trusted Afghan warlords to close the noose, only to watch in frustration as they allowed bin Laden and al Qaeda’s senior leadership to melt away into the tribal lands of Pakistan.

Two years later, Miller was serving in Iraq, fighting an insurgency that the Defense Department didn’t yet acknowledge, when his vehicle was ambushed near Baghdad, and he was shot and wounded. He later returned to Iraq as Delta Force’s deputy commander and commander several times, taking part in the successful hunt for archterrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and running Special Operations Forces in brutal fighting in western Anbar Province, where terrorists were infiltrating from Syria. That operation was part of the largely successful U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq, and the “Anbar Miracle” that seemed to herald another victory—until the 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal allowed al Qaeda in Iraq to reconstitute itself as the fearsome Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Miller returned to Afghanistan during the 2010-11 “surge,” when U.S. forces numbered more than 100,000, and returned yet again in 2013-14 to serve as commanding general of the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. He would command across both theaters of war during 2016-18 as head of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, operational headquarters for America’s elite commandos such as Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six.

His career has been built, in part, on his understanding of the on-the-ground dynamics of conflict. But by the eve of his departure from Afghanistan earlier this week, Miller and NATO’s Resolute Support Command had withdrawn its liaison officers in the field, and thus lost visibility into what is happening with the Afghan security forces trying to hold off the Taliban. Recent reports suggest the Taliban now control more than 160 of the country’s 407 districts—up from about 61 in 2018—with whole garrisons of Afghan troops surrendering, in some cases without a fight. The Afghan defense minister has ordered a “strategic consolidation” of his troops, concentrating them in the major cities while surrendering much of the countryside to the Taliban. In what some experts interpret as a sign of desperation, the Afghan government is even forming alliances again with independent armed militias with a history of animosity toward the Taliban, in a bid for survival if it comes to all-out civil war.

In a recent discussion with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the seasoned diplomat who has led U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, Miller discussed the recent negative trend lines inside Afghanistan. The two Americans most personally identified with recent efforts to end the war agreed that Afghanistan was a peculiar country, where events can take a sharp turn very quickly. Miller acknowledged some pessimism in our interviews: There’s every possibility, he said, that Afghan Security Forces won’t be able to hold.

“The Afghan Security Forces almost to a unit are less confident, and its leaders are obviously worried, because a big part of this business is about confidence—and in the face of the Taliban’s aggressive offensive and the surrender of some ASF garrisons, that’s in short supply right now,” he told me.

The Ministry of Defense’s strategic consolidations of forces into the major cities is sound tactically, he said. “But the question is, will that be enough?”

Miller took command of Operation Resolute Support believing that commanders can learn more from the aspects of operations that are going badly than those that are going well. In 2018, that meant the 14,000 U.S. and 6,500 NATO troops and their leaders in Afghanistan as the bulwark of Resolute Support were learning a lot, and in a hurry.

Miller immediately set about establishing a high-tempo battle rhythm, an approach that came from the intense, physical culture of the Special Operations Forces. Each day began with physical training, even at the command level. Miller’s workday started with poring over a voluminous situation report detailing every significant event in the Afghan theater over the previous 24 hours, followed on most days by an in-depth briefing on the day’s operations and intelligence.

As a Delta Force commander in Iraq in the mid-2000s under the mentorship of then-JSOC commander General Stanley McChrystal, Miller had helped birth a new, relentless style of operations that McChrystal wryly called the “Amazon.com” of counterterrorism—using a mix of intelligence-gathering and surprise attacks to keep adversaries constantly off balance.

In adapting that model to Afghanistan, Miller started by reducing reports and other internal paperwork, cutting hundreds of positions at headquarters, and drafting some of the best officers from across the armed services, and from Special Forces, to come serve as liaisons coordinating operations with the Afghan security forces that were now supposed to be the country’s main defenders. The group of high achievers he assembled included noted leaders like Lt. Gen. James Rainey and Command Sergeant Major Tim Metheny, as well as standout performers from other NATO countries.

Carter Malkasian was a former State Department official with years of experience in Afghanistan, including as a senior adviser to Marine General Joseph Dunford, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Miller enlisted him as an adviser on the new ‘Ops Design.’ Though he’s been critical of the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, he saw Miller as a uniquely effective leader in that environment.

“None of his predecessors was able to create the kind of change at the tactical level achieved by General Miller,” Malkasian said in an interview. While close air support may sound like a matter of just dropping a lot of bombs, he noted, creating a system that is able to detect and quickly and accurately target the enemy in real time, with very few troops in-country, is a surprisingly complex art.

Malkasian called it “the most effective and efficient operational design that the United States had in two decades of war.”

Miller, he said, “created a machine that with a very small number of troops could launch so many accurate airstrikes that it was difficult for the Taliban to capture territory. I know because in our negotiations with Taliban leaders they constantly complained about the airstrikes, and they wanted them stopped.”

Miller told me in one of our interviews that he had learned from long experience never to become “seduced by direct action” into believing that the targeted killings or airstrikes were a war-winning strategy. Any gains they achieved even in reducing violence tended to be temporary. The strikes were a means to a long-term end: A political resolution to the conflict.

Miller thus dropped the reluctance of some of his earlier predecessors and fully supported peace talks with the Taliban. He traveled the region with Khalilzad to meet directly with Taliban leaders, including regular visits to Doha, Qatar, where a team of Taliban negotiators was staying.

Those negotiations culminated with the signing to much fanfare of the Doha Agreement in February 2020. In exchange for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by May 1, 2021, Taliban leaders agreed to make significant progress toward reaching a political power-sharing and peace agreement with Afghan government officials; reduce violence across the country; and demonstrate the will and ability to prevent groups like al Qaeda and ISIS from again using Afghanistan as a platform for terrorism aimed at the United States or its allies.

After Doha was signed, the U.S. military immediately began reducing force levels in Afghanistan as called for in the agreement. President Donald Trump had set a goal of just 2,500 troops in-country by the end of the year, and the intensity of Miller’s air campaign slackened noticeably as he lost forces and resources and focused on shrinking the U.S. footprint. The Taliban limited their direct attacks on U.S. personnel, but otherwise made no moves to live up to their end of the deal. Yet still the U.S. troop reductions continued apace.

By the time the Biden administration took charge earlier this year, the U.S. intelligence community had issued a classified assessment of the situation: If U.S. troops left before the Taliban and the Afghan government reached a firm power-sharing deal, the extremist group was likely to re-impose control on the Afghan people within two or three years. A congressionally mandated Afghan Study Group reported in February that it would likely take even less time than that for al Qaeda to reestablish a working base in Afghanistan.

When asked why the Taliban were never seriously pressured to hold up their end of the Doha bargain, Malkasian was blunt. “I think many military leaders and myself believed that if the Taliban failed to keep their promises to reduce violence, break ties with al Qaeda and engage in good faith dialogue with the Afghan government, then the United States would at some point respond by halting troop withdrawals,” he said. “Unfortunately, that never happened.”

Instead, after a lengthy internal policy debate, Biden announced the full withdrawal.

Senior U.S. military leaders had hoped to sustain a force of a few thousand troops in Afghanistan. (Miller, as an active-duty general, was consulted on the decision but has not made his own views public.) That, they thought, would be enough to continue some focused counterterror operations and backstop the Afghan Security Forces. But Miller also knew when he took the job as commander of Resolute Support that patience in Washington for the operation was nearly exhausted.

In the weeks after the order for full withdrawal was given—a “retrograde” is the official term—Miller and his team set about conducting what military leaders consider one of the single most difficult and risky operations in the Pentagon playbook: pulling out of a still contested battlespace. The logistics alone, of moving or disposing of mountains of military equipment while constantly shrinking and readjusting protection measures, were daunting. The roar of aircraft engines provided nearly constant background noise around Bagram in recent months as the U.S. military flew hundreds of loads of equipment and material out of the country, while designating thousands more pieces of equipment for destruction by the Defense Logistics Agency. In the process Miller’s command handed over seven bases to the Afghan military, finally passing along the keys to Bagram Air Base on July 2.

As he counted down to Zero Day for Operation Resolute Support, Miller’s focus also turned to an effort to create a continuing support structure for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the collective group of army, air force and police charged with keeping the Taliban at bay, which on paper still number more than 300,000 troops and police.

Some of the support will be financial: During a June trip to Kabul, Khalilzad promised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that Washington will provide $3.3 billion annually for the next two years. The Pentagon is also exploring various options for providing the ASF training and logistical support from afar, for offering intelligence and reconnaissance help, and possibly for carrying out airstrikes to target terrorists from “over the horizon.” While none of that support is impossible on paper, all of it is extremely difficult and falls far short of ensuring the viability of the ANSF.

In the meantime, the Afghan defense minister has ordered a “strategic consolidation” of his troops, concentrating them in the major cities as a last defense while necessarily surrendering much of the countryside to the Taliban offensive. In what some experts interpret as a sign of desperation, the Afghan government is also once again forming alliances with independent armed militias with a history of animosity toward the Taliban, in a bid for survival if it comes to all-out civil war. A similar dynamic played out in Iraq when its government faced an existential threat from the advance of ISIS forces, and, though Iranian-backed Shiite militias were important in fighting the terrorists, they have broken the government’s all-important monopoly on the use of force, destabilizing a still fractured Iraqi state.

“Afghan government officials are not aligning themselves with militias because they fail to see the risks involved,” Miller said. “They are doing it because they think such alliances are necessary for their survival.”

As Zero Day approached and the situation continued to darken in Afghanistan, Miller was blunt in assessing the situation. He has never forgotten serving in Iraq in the early days of the conflict, when the powers that be in the Pentagon and Washington refused to admit even to themselves that the mission wasn’t accomplished, and that the U.S. was indeed fighting an organized insurgency.

Just in recent weeks Taliban insurgents have intensified battlefield attacks against government forces. A new U.S. intelligence assessment that takes note of those negative trends posits that the Afghan government could fall within six to 12 months of a U.S. military departure, as opposed to the two- or three-year window that the intelligence community assessed just months ago. Earlier this month, more than 1,000 Afghan troops fled into neighboring Tajikistan to escape the Taliban onslaught in the north, and the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s main border crossing with Iran to the west.

While there is no denying that the American public supports what they see as the long-overdue end to a “forever war,” the Afghans have acutely felt the U.S. decision to leave as abandonment. Miller registered the shock on the faces of Afghan government officials and security force leaders when they were informed of the decision to pull out all U.S. troops. He also noted the extreme nervousness and understandable worry of leaders of Afghan civil society and women’s rights groups.

“Civil society and women’s rights groups are very worried that the Taliban will once again take control of the country and return to the brutal ways of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the 1990s,” Miller said. “And they should be, given the targeted killing taking place, the majority of it conducted by the Taliban.”

He was referring to an assassination and bombing campaign that has killed scores of Afghans this year, including the deputy governor of Kabul, the head of a radio station, a women’s rights activist and two female judges. A horrific terrorist bombing of the Sayed Al-Shuhada girl’s school in Kabul in May killed 85 Afghans and wounded 147 others, most of them young girls just released from class. Counterterrorism experts suspect ISIS-Khorasan, which has conducted similar attacks in the past. Videos have also recently surfaced of Taliban fighters summarily executing 22 unarmed members of an Afghan Special Forces unit after it surrendered.

Miller certainly has no confidence in Taliban assurances that Afghan women will still be allowed to go to school and enter the workforce in areas they control, or that the group is ready to break long and enduring ties to al Qaeda terrorists.

“There is a public face of the Taliban negotiators and spokesmen in Doha that make public statements like that, and they sound rational, but I contrast that to what we’re seeing on the battlefield and in the treatment of people in places already under Taliban control,” Miller said. While there are pragmatists under the Taliban umbrella who understand that aligning themselves once again with al Qaeda is risky, he noted, there are also true believers who will never break those ties for ideological and cultural reasons. “The danger, of course, is that the pragmatists don’t win that internal argument. As I sit here today, we see al Qaeda terrorists present today in Afghanistan among the Taliban fighters.”

In the face of Taliban gains, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently created a high-level team to help coordinate with the State Department the possible evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans who served as interpreters, drivers and assistants to U.S. forces and diplomats, possibly to the U.S. territory of Guam, where their visa requests to move to the United States could be processed. Such an emergency evacuation would present the Pentagon with another in a long list of “Sophie’s Choices,” and make parallels to Saigon in 1975 unavoidable, given the U.S. military’s emergency evacuation of more than 100,000 South Vietnamese to Guam that year.

“I’m confident militarily that we could execute an evacuation plan, but that decision lies with policy makers [in Washington],” said Miller. “You would have to worry about what such an exodus would look like to those Afghans left behind, and how it would impact their outlook on the likely outcome of the conflict.”

Retired General Dave Rodriguez, a four-star general who previously commanded the International Security Assistance Force – Joint Command in Afghanistan, and served there with Miller, notes that the United States has a checkered history in withdrawing U.S. military forces from inconclusive wars, notably in Iraq and Vietnam. “Scott Miller had to spend a lot of time making sure his people remained focused on the really demanding mission at hand and getting out in the best possible manner,” he said. “But believe me, memories of Army helicopters pulling people off the roof of the Saigon embassy in 1975, and the chaotic turn this type of mission can take, all that goes through your mind as a commander.”

Earlier this week, General Scott Miller stood on a podium half a world away from the leaders in Washington who had ordered him to pull out, trying to make sense of the memories and inevitable flood of emotions. Looking out over the gathering of senior Afghan government and U.S. military officials, he spoke of the sense of purpose that had united them in this dangerous and often bloody mission over so many years, and the terrible sacrifices it exacted. Over the 20 years since U.S. warplanes and helicopters first blackened the skies over Afghanistan 2,312 U.S. service members had been killed in action. More than 20,000 had been wounded, many of them grievously.

“As I depart Afghanistan, I believe that it’s very appropriate to remember sacrifice. The countries that have served here, many have lost service members and civilians. Our Afghan partners have lost service members, they’ve lost civilians,” Miller told the crowd. “Over time, our job is now just not to forget. With the families that have lost people across this conflict, it will be important to them to know that someone remembers, someone cares, and that we’re able to talk about that in the future.”

Twenty years earlier, Miller had also been gathered with fellow soldiers, this time for a backyard barbecue on Memorial Day. At midday they had marked the occasion by calling out the names of their fallen comrades with a toast. The younger members of the unit recited the names of the older members fallen in battle to create a shared legacy and bond.

Just a few months after that 2001 barbecue, terrorists flew commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and in response the U.S. sent Miller and Delta Force into Afghanistan. Over the next 20 years, the recitations of the names of the fallen at Memorial Day gatherings of the U.S. military grew steadily longer. Miller would lose friends and innocence in roughly equal measure.

Was it worth it? The question is never far from the mind of military commanders at the end of a combat deployment, and I asked him directly in our first interview. At the time, he offered a perfunctory answer about victories and failures and the need at some point to go back and do “an honest evaluation” of both, so the United States would be better prepared in the future.

Days later, I received something unexpected: a lengthy letter from Miller over email, wrestling with the question far more deeply.

“Jim, I thought I could provide better and more thoughtful answers to your questions. I also probably should have picked a better day than Memorial Day to speak with you—not surprisingly that day hit me hard this year especially—perhaps it’s the 20-year mark or the closing chapter of Afghanistan,” Miller wrote.

“You asked me if it was ‘worth it?’ That’s obviously a tough question in the best of times—and certainly in the shadow of the losses it is even more difficult. As a leader, and I know that I’m not unique in this, I am often asked this question by family members, and sometimes by the forces that I lead. And knowing the cost of each fatality or hard wounded—each casualty hurts deeply, and they always should hurt—sometimes it’s difficult to know whether the casualty on a target on a given day was worth it.

“But when I arrived in Afghanistan with our forces in 2001, it was quite clear to us and the American people that we were here to protect our home. The men and women I served with understood the risks and the costs to their families, but we also knew we had that important objective to rally around.”

Over the years, as the deployments and inevitable roll call of casualties mounted and memories of 9/11 dimmed, that once simple calculus grew more complicated. Yet, as Miller pointed out in our interviews, in that long stretch of time the United States did not suffer another catastrophic terrorist attack, counter to what many terrorism experts had predicted at the time, and not because the terrorists quit trying.

“While each casualty and loss takes something away and hurts deeply, I’ve been able to focus on the overriding sense of purpose and goodness of the men and women I’ve served with and led, and the personal risk and sacrifice they’ve been willing to accept,” Miller wrote. “For most of us, and for me in particular that’s the place I’ve always been able to land. We do this to protect the American people and keep our homeland safe.”

Lately Miller has taken to reading books about other generals and officials who were ordered to wind down and end bitter wars, notably Lewis Sorley’s “A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam.” Sorely profiles legendary General Creighton Abrams, former chief of staff of the Army and namesake of the Abrams battle tank, who was the last U.S. commander of major forces in Vietnam. Abrams struggled late in the war with diminishing manpower and resources as he tried to prepare South Vietnamese forces to stand and fight on their own, even as North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces advanced, diplomats raced to find an elusive political resolution, and the clamor grew in Washington to bring the troops home.

In the final analysis, their efforts and the unfathomable questions would be judged by history. And as he hopes for a better ending in Afghanistan and prepares to retire, Scott Miller has made his peace with that fact. As the last commander of the final rotation, he would unpack the emotional piece when he finally makes it home from war.

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