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Trump's Pick to Oversee Afghanistan Could Signal a New Approach

Lt. Gen. Scott Miller, then-commanding general of Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence, talks with soldiers before one of the Airborne School jumps in 2015. - Patrick A. Albright/U.S. Army
Lt. Gen. Scott Miller, then-commanding general of Fort Benning and the Maneuver Center of Excellence, talks with soldiers before one of the Airborne School jumps in 2015. Patrick A. Albright/U.S. Army

Army Lt. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller has been tapped to be the next commander of U.S.-led military forces in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said, as waves of attacks continue to rock the wartorn nation after nearly 17 years of conflict.

Miller, who spent much of his 35-year career commanding Special Operations forces, will step from the shadows to lead a war effort that has seen few strategic successes since President Donald Trump announced his new strategy nine months ago.

The selection of Miller indicates the Trump Administration may be rethinking its conventional approach. Miller’s background draws on decades of experience in commanding clandestine commando teams, working with foreign partners, and collaborating with intelligence agencies to target terror groups — often resulting in drone strikes and nighttime raids.

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For the past two years, Miller commanded U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive organization that oversees the military’s elite counterterrorism units, including Navy SEAL Team Six and Army Delta Force. His forces are credited with helping dismantle ISIS militant networks across Iraq and Syria by killing and capturing thousands of insurgent leaders. He has also developed an international task force to track foreign fighter flows and terror plots across the globe.

The Pentagon declined to comment on Miller’s appointment, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. A formal announcement is expected in the weeks ahead.

Miller, 57, will need to harness his extensive résumé in counterterrorism operations to curtail the bloodshed and crush the mosaic of insurgent groups intent on toppling the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government. He will also have to draw on his previous experience overseeing U.S. Army training programs in hopes of continuing build up the Afghan military.

Miller has his work cut out for him. Afghan forces remain riddled with corruption and heavily reliant upon American intelligence and firepower to maintain a semblance of control of their country. The central government held just 56% of the country’s 407 districts, as of Jan. 31, according to the latest report by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog. Insurgent groups control or influence about 15% of the districts, while the remaining 29% are contested.

The Taliban and a local ISIS affiliate have recently launched a series of high-profile attacks that have killed hundreds inside densely populated cities, including Kabul. Last week, Taliban fighters stormed the western capital city of Farah province and were repelled by Afghan ground forces only after U.S. commanders rushed air support from MQ-9 Reaper drones and A-10 attack jets. Just days earlier, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack that killed at least 8 people and wounded dozens in a government building in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

In short, America’s longest war has no end in sight.

Miller is well acquainted to Afghanistan’s problems. He was among the first American troops inside the country after hijackers attacked the World Trade Towers and Pentagon in 2001. He later directed a Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell in Washington in 2007. He returned to Afghanistan for 16 months in 2010 and 2011 when he led an effort to train, arm, and equip local forces under the Village Stability Operations and Afghan Local Police programs. In his last rotation through the country, from June 2013 to June 2014, he was in command of all special operations in Afghanistan.

Michael Mullen, a retired Navy admiral who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Miller’s rare mix of combat experience, oversight of training missions, and interest in Afghan culture makes him the “best athlete” the military has to offer in taking command in Afghanistan. “We all know it’s a tough environment — and it’s going to continue to be that way, but I can’t think of a better officer than Scott Miller for the president to choose for the job.”

Miller graduated from West Point in 1983 and served in the 82nd Airborne division, the 2nd Infantry Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment and Delta Force. It was in Delta Force, a unit that the military doesn’t officially acknowledge exits, that Miller led ground forces to retrieve American troops under siege in the infamous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu. His actions were documented in the book and subsequent film, “Black Hawk Down.” Miller was awarded a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor during the harrowing 19-hour episode that left 18 Americans dead and 73 injured.

He took command over Delta Force beginning in the summer of 2005, a blood-soaked period in Iraq when sectarian tensions were high and U.S. special operators were conducting daily kill/capture missions against the insurgency, according to “Relentless Strike,” a book documenting the secret history of Joint Special Operations Command.

Miller’s most public role came in 2014 when he was commanding general of U.S. Army training at the Maneuver Center of Excellence in Fort Benning, Ga. It was during that time he oversaw Army Ranger School and the process in 2015 that led to three female officers — 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, Capt. Kristen Griest, and Maj. Lisa Jaster — earning Ranger tabs for the first time in history. It was a significant moment for gender integration in the military and came on the heels of a policy change to open combat jobs to women in the Army.

Miller once again stepped from public view when he took on the top spot as a three-star general at Joint Special Operations Command headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C. in March 2016. He will earn a fourth star as commander in Afghanistan, if confirmed by Congress.

Miller is set to replace Gen. John Nicholson, who has been in command since March 2016. Although the post is typically a two-year stint, Nicholson has faced headwinds from Washington the whole way through. In his first year, the Obama Administration pressured him to reduce 1,400 troops. In his second year, he had to convince Trump to send 4,000 troops back and approve an intensified strategy against insurgents.

Still, NBC News reported last summer that Trump considered firing Nicholson for lack of progress. Thus far, the Trump Administration’s strategy to reinforce the country’s security while launching more airstrikes in support of Afghan forces has done little to stop the militants’ advance or pressure the Taliban to negotiate a peace agreement. The Taliban, funded in large measure by the opium trade, now controls wide swaths of Afghanistan.

Ronald E. Neumann, a retired U.S. diplomat who has served as ambassador to Afghanistan, Bahrain and Algeria, said repeated policy changes toward Afghanistan by successive administrations has resulted exacerbated the country’s problems. “I don’t know if anyone can solve Afghanistan’s problems,” he said. “If the Trump Administration stays committed, I’m confident Scott Miller will deliver positive results.”

There are about 14,000 U.S. and 6,500 NATO troops inside Afghanistan. The figure is far fewer than the 2010 peak of more than 100,000 U.S. troops, but Americans are still fighting and dying. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in combat during 2017; two have been killed in 2018; and more than 2,400 have been killed since 2001.

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