Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley appears before the House Armed Services Committee, July 9, 2020. Michael Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS
Was General Mark Milley speaking truth to power?

This month Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley addressed the Brookings Institution on the subject of the war in Afghanistan. Overall, he framed 20 years of U.S. involvement in the country as having achieved a “modicum of success” resulting in a “stalemate” on the battlefield. More presciently, he told the virtual crowd that, in effect, the Afghan government could not survive without U.S. military support, concluding rather bluntly that the “only solution is a negotiated settlement.” 

In short, the nation’s highest ranking military officer said publicly that there is no pathway to military victory in Afghanistan. Yet we’re still there, and Congress is set to pass the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which includes an unprecedented measure that would make it more difficult to bring U.S. troops home from the 20-year Afghanistan conflict.

General Milley’s comments recall an infamous World War I song familiar to British troops on their way to the trenches. Sung cynically to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” it simply went, “We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.” This subtle but powerful protest remains an illuminating souvenir of a war that became famous for its seemingly senseless carnage.

Historically, implicit protests such as that song typically emerge when troops who carry the burden of executing policy become disenchanted with the direction set by the political “leadership.” Similarly, the term “Mickey Mouse” was used by American servicemen in Vietnam to express these sentiments. The film “Full Metal Jacket” closes with U.S. Marines marching into Hue singing the theme song of the “Mickey Mouse Club.”

General Milley’s comments were far more subtle, and on first pass sounded like a somewhat banal acceptance of the status quo by the leadership, which is still letting the rank and file do all the killing and dying. However, when reconsidered, his remarks almost beg us to read between the lines.

Simply put, the military executes the mission set by the civilian leadership. Directly and publicly criticizing policy would be a career killer, just as Gen. MacArthur found out nearly 70 years ago. It could be inferred that Milley’s public comments were in fact about as bold as an active-duty member of the military can be when talking about policy. Particularly striking was his point that, “There’s a strong argument to be made that we have forces in places they shouldn’t be.”  

One should remember that the initial invasion in 2001 — before it became a near-textbook case of mission creep — was focused on eliminating al-Qaida, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.  By virtually all metrics, this initial mission was a success.  By 2009 it was estimated that fewer than 100 al-Qaida members remained in Afghanistan. In 2011, U.S. Special Operators killed the head of al-Qaida, Osama Bin Laden (albeit in Pakistan). By 2018, the Department of Defense reported that “[t]he al-Qa’ida threat to the United States and its allies and partners has decreased and the few remaining al-Qa’ida core members are focused on their own survival.” 

Yet these successes were replaced by other missions, which cost substantial blood and treasure. Central to this idea was the ridiculous expectation that somehow Afghanistan, despite no history of centralized rule, could be molded into a thriving Jeffersonian democracy. General David Petraeus and his band of “COINistas” convinced then-President Obama that the strategy of “clear, hold, and build,” directly lifted from his “success” in Iraq would work in Afghanistan.  But the Afghans, much like the Iraqis before them, didn’t want the product Washington was selling.  

General Milley addressed both points concretely with his comments. He said the United States went into Afghanistan “to ensure that Afghanistan never again became a platform for a terroristic strike against the United States,” adding that ”at least to date, we have been successful in preventing that from happening again.” 

Further, he noted, “The government of Afghanistan was never going to militarily defeat the Taliban, and the Taliban, as long as we were supporting the government of Afghanistan, was never going to militarily defeat the regime.” In short, we came, we did our job as prescribed after 9/11, and the rest (predictably) didn’t work.  

But, Congress isn’t listening.  A poll commissioned in April of 2020 by Concerned Veterans for America found that 73 percent of veterans and 69 percent of military households support withdrawing from Afghanistan.  These numbers were up 13 and nine percentage points, respectively, from similar polling in 2019. However, it would appear that Washington is headed in the opposite direction.

Included in the House version of this year’s NDAA is a provision, known as the “Crow-Cheney” amendment, which would require the president to retain troop minimums in Afghanistan. Historically, as  in Vietnam and Iraq, Congress has set “troop caps” which set ceilings, rather than floors on the number of U.S. troops to be deployed to a given foreign battleground.  This awkwardly, and without precedent, forces the executive to continue making war even at the risk of making peace harder to achieve. 

Strategically, it runs the risk of not only keeping the U.S. in an unwinnable war, but continuing to stretch our resources where they could be better placed elsewhere and to beef up readiness for real threats that may emerge elsewhere. 

General Milley appears to have spoken as much truth to power as one on active duty can, short of resigning in protest. While acknowledging the accomplishment of our primary mission in 2001 — eliminating al-Qaida in Afghanistan— and then tactfully laying out the reality on the ground, he provided policy-makers and Congress the information and space to bring the conflict to an honorable and expedient close.  

Simply put, our efforts to drive al-Qaida from Afghanistan have worked, while our efforts to create a democratic and viable state in a country without a history of centralized government have not.  Meanwhile, Congress — detached as ever from public opinion — seeks to use federal law to permanently entrench U.S. troops in the country. 

For what purpose?  If Congress refuses to process the remarks of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the opinions of those who have been fighting this war for nearly 20 years, it would seem they just want us there, for the sake of being there, because we’re there.