A former top ranking national security official in his administration says former President Donald Trump never intended to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan — because the plan to withdraw by May 1 was a ruse.
Chris Miller, who was the administration’s final secretary of defense, told Defense One that the deal negotiated with the Taliban was a “play” intended to get Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to step down or give in to a power-sharing agreement with the extremist group that would allow the US to keep some troops in the country to carry out counterterrorism operations.
“The whole policy strategy going forward was ‘Ghani is going to have to deal with the Taliban.’ And it wasn’t going to be a 50-50 split between the Afghan government and Taliban. We knew that. It was going to be 75-25, and then you flip this thing into an interim government,” he told Defense One.
He said the Trump administration never intended to cut and run.
“It wasn’t an unconditional surrender: ‘We’re leaving, heading for the door,’” he said. “We weren’t just going to head for the door. We were going to jam Ghani hard and make him cut a deal with the Taliban. It would have been ugly. It wouldn’t have been great. But there was no plan to just leave.”
While serving on the National Security Council, Miller said it was determined that the US could continue to run counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan with only 800 military personnel.
“We did plenty of wargames on this and we knew what the minimal force structure was,” he said. “The number was 800. If this all goes bad, what is the minimal force structure needed to maintain [counterterrorism] strike and reconnaissance capability? We can do it for 800, 850.”
By the end of 2020, Miller, who was then acting defense secretary, said the administration expected to negotiate a new government in Afghanistan made up mainly of Taliban officials.
The new government would allow US forces to remain to support the Afghan security forces and to fight terrorists.
But the plan never came to fruition because Trump was defeated in November.
The revelations in the report dispute President Biden’s claim that his hands were tied on mounting a full withdrawal because of the agreement Trump negotiated with the Taliban.
“When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban,” Biden said in remarks at the White House on Monday. “Under his agreement, US forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 … US forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 American forces to 2,500 troops in the country, and the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001.”
“The choice I had to make as your president,” he added, “was either to follow through on that agreement, or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season. There would have been no cease-fire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1.”
Miller said national security officials in the Trump administration didn’t believe a full withdrawal of troops was inevitable despite Trump’s calls to bring all military personnel home.
He said during a visit to Afghanistan in December he met with Vice President Amrullah Saleh to talk about the withdrawal.
“He came in and just talked about the threat,” Miller said. “Essentially, the message was: ‘This is going to be bad. And if this happens, al Qaeda is going to be back.’”
Miller said the US officials didn’t discuss the Afghan security forces with the government officials.
“It would not have been appropriate to say ‘Is your Army going to collapse?’ But of course we were all thinking that,” Miller said.