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‘I don’t think anybody has died in vain’: Top general gives emotional defense of the Afghanistan war

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/20/2019 Dan Lamothe
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The Pentagon’s top general defended the war in Afghanistan on Friday, saying there was not “some coordinated lie” by senior officials to mischaracterize the conflict and noting that no terrorist attack originating in Afghanistan has been carried out on American soil in the past 18 years.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he does not believe U.S. troops died in vain in the war.

“I do not. I absolutely do not,” he said. “I could not look at myself in the mirror. 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. So no, I don’t think anybody has died in vain, per se.”

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The comments came in response to questions prompted by The Afghanistan Papers, The Washington Post’s recent reporting about the war based on documents. The documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year court battle, detail not only dysfunction during the conflict but how U.S. officials often publicly touted progress while privately harboring doubts about the war’s long-term outcome.

Milley, who served three tours in Afghanistan and often cited progress there, disagreed with assertions he has seen that senior U.S. officials deceived the American public or Congress. He addressed this issue while standing alongside Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper at a Pentagon news conference.

“More than a stretch — I find that a mischaracterization in my own personal experience,” Milley said. “You are looking at probably hundreds of general officers, State Department employees, CIA, Department of Defense folks. I just don’t think you can get that level of coordination to that kind of deception.”

The Post’s reporting draws on thousands of pages that were gathered by investigators working for John Sopko, the congressionally appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. The reports did not accuse U.S. officials of lying, but Sopko said in an interview that the documents show “the American people have constantly been lied to.”

Milley said assessments that commanders provided over the span of the war were “based on what we knew at the time, and those were honest assessments.”

The general, asked whether it is fair to compare the Afghanistan documents to the Pentagon Papers that detailed deception by senior officials during the Vietnam War. The Pentagon Papers were written “in advance of decision-making,” Milley said, a reference to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara calling in 1967 for a secret task force to detail the history of the war as he weighed what to do next. The documents about Afghanistan, he said, are an attempt by Sopko’s office “to do post-facto interviews to determine lessons learned for the force as we go to the future.”

“I think they’re fundamentally different in both nature, and scale and scope,” he said.

Esper said the war “has been very transparent,” noting that the media and members of Congress have traveled to Afghanistan on numerous occasions over the past 18 years.

“It’s not like this war was hiding somewhere, and now there has been a revelation,” Esper said. “So I think, between all of the people looking at this conflict over all the years, some type of insinuation that there has been this large-scale conspiracy is just, to me, ridiculous, and I certainly echo the chairman’s comments on that front.”

The comments came as President Trump weighs reducing the U.S. military’s footprint in Afghanistan, while Pentagon officials advocate maintaining an enduring presence to perform surveillance and counterterrorism operations.

Earlier this week, Esper said that Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. commander in Kabul, believes he can carry out the counterterrorism mission while reducing the number of U.S. troops deployed there. The reduction would shrink the deployed force to about 8,600, down from the 12,000 to 13,000 there now, U.S. officials have said.

The defense secretary indicated Friday that he sees the U.S. military staying in Afghanistan for some time.

“We have a mission in Afghanistan, and that is to ensure that it never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists,” Esper said. “So, until we are confident that that mission is complete, we will retain a presence to do that.”

Milley added that it has been clear for years that the “only way that this is going to end” in Afghanistan is if a peace settlement is negotiated with the Taliban.

“This is a very difficult, complicated situation,” he said.

dan.lamothe@washpost.com

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