Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper speak during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper speak during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. Susan Walsh/AP

Top U.S. General Defends Afghanistan War

CJCS Mark Milley denied that officials “lied” to the American public about the 18-year conflict.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley defended the 18-year war in Afghanistan, pushing back bluntly on the central conclusion of a recently-published official study into the war that showed officials presented a much rosier public assessment of the conflict than was evident on the ground — and insisting that the war has achieved its central objective to prevent another 9/11-style attack on the U.S. homeland.

“I know there’s an assertion out there of some sort of coordinated lie over the course of 18 years,” Milley told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday morning. "I find that a bit of a stretch. More than a bit of a stretch, I find that a mischaracterization."

Too many officials across too many agencies worked on Afghanistan, he argued, to suggest that there was any kind of deliberate lie to the American public about the state of the war. “I just don't think you can get that level of coordination to do that kind of deception,” he said. “Those were honest assessments and they were never intended to deceive either the Congress or the American people.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, alongside Milley, also dismissed the notion that officials “lied” about the progression of the war. 

“For 18 years now, the media has been over there. The Congress has been there multiple times. We’ve had the SIGAR there. We’ve had IGs there. This has been a very transparent—it’s not like this war was hiding somewhere and now all of a sudden there’s been a revelation. 

“Some type of insinuation that there's been this large-scale conspiracy is, to me, ridiculous.”

Milley also rejected comparisons of the study, done by the Pentagon’s inspector general for Afghanistan, with the infamous Pentagon Papers that exposed officials’ mischaracterization of the war in Vietnam in the 1970s. 

The Pentagon Papers, he said, “were contemporary papers written in advance of decision-making.” The Afghanistan Papers, by contrast, “was an attempt by SIGAR to do post-facto interviews to determine lessons looking forward. I think they’re fundamentally different in both nature, scale and scope.” 

Pressed on whether American lives had been given in vain, Milley — himself a veteran of the conflict — was unequivocal: “Absolutely not,” he said. “I couldn't answer myself at 2 or 3 in the morning when my eyes pop open and I see the dead roll in front of my eyes.”

Milley’s remarks amounted to one of the most direct rebuttals of the controversial papers since their publication by the Washington Post last week. Obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the study found that U.S. officials repeatedly and emphatically acknowledged a lack of understanding of both the strategy and status of the war. Government interviewers spoke to more than 400 officials who played a direct role in the war who offered blunt retrospectives, believing that their assessments would remain confidential. 

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general and the White House’s Afghan war czar during both the Bush and Obama administrations, said in 2015. “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

The publication of the documents has reinvigorated debate over America’s longest war, which has led to the deaths of 2,400 servicemembers over the better part of two decades. Reactions to the documents have spanned the gamut. Some Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Senate Armed Services Committee members Richard Blumenthal, Conn, and Kirsten Gillibrand, N.Y., have called for public hearings. Others have argued that the papers revealed what was plain to see to anyone paying attention: That multiple administrations struggled to form a coherent strategy in Afghanistan and the conflict had dragged on as a result. (Defense watchers have long joked that the United States has “turned so many corners in Afghanistan that it has gone around the block” — a reference to repeated assertions across multiple administrations that the United States had “turned a corner” in Afghanistan.)

Some 2020 Democrats have used the documents to argue that the U.S. should shrink its presence to a more limited counterterrorism force focused on ISIS and al-Qaeda remnants and remove forces focused on helping the Afghan government fight the Taliban. President Trump, long ambivalent about U.S. involvement in the Middle East, has thrown his support behind a slogan to “end the forever wars” and is reportedly planning a similar drawdown. 

“None of us want forever wars, mostly those of us who serve in wars and who have taken care of our wounded and buried our dead,” Milley said Friday. 

But Milley’s defense did little to quiet critics of the Pentagon’s approach to the conflict — in particular concerns that the real lesson of the Afghanistan papers is that the U.S. national security infrastructure across administrations rewarded short-term gains over broader strategic decisions. By pushing back on the suggestion that officials “lied” without addressing more institutional or systemic explanations for the misleading public assessments, critics say, Milley and Esper simply muddied the waters.

“This is such a purposely simplistic interpretation,” former Pentagon and National Security Council official Loren DeJong Schulman wrote on Twitter. “Milley is smarter than this.”

There are currently roughly 13,000 American servicemembers in Afghanistan.

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