The Biden administration’s internal debate over the future of US military involvement in the war in Afghanistan over the last several weeks has taken place quietly, largely behind closed doors.
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been heated. In fact, a previously unreported episode at a recent high-level meeting shows just how fraught these discussions have been as the Biden team tries to figure out how, or even whether, to bring to an end America’s longest-ever war.
At a recent National Security Council Principal’s Committee meeting, Cabinet-level officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and others gathered as part of the administration’s weekslong review of US policy in Afghanistan.
The officials are debating which of three broad options for the 20-year war in Afghanistan Biden should pursue. The first is to adhere to former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require Biden to withdraw all remaining 2,500 US troops by May 1. The second is to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group, allowing American forces to remain in the country beyond early May. And third is to defy the Trump-Taliban pact altogether and keep fighting in Afghanistan with no stated end date.
During the meeting, according to four sources from the White House, Pentagon, and elsewhere familiar with what happened, Milley made an impassioned — and at times “emotional,” according to some — case to consider keeping US troops in the country.
Milley, who was the deputy commanding general of US forces in Afghanistan and served three tours in the country, essentially argued that if American forces fully withdraw by May 1, it would open the door for the Taliban to overtake the country, making life worse for millions of Afghans and imperiling US national security goals.
Women’s rights “will go back to the Stone Age,” Milley said, according to two of the sources. He argued that it wasn’t worth leaving the country after “all the blood and treasure spent” there over the last two decades. He also added that, in his view, the lack of 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan would make it harder to stem threats from a nuclear-armed Pakistan.
“He went on for a while,” said a White House official, “and everyone was sort of like, ‘Whoa.’” The official said Milley’s plea was filled with “a lot more emotion than substance” but that “it wasn’t super logical.”
After Milley finished, Secretary of Defense Austin during his turn to speak said he understood that there was a lot of emotion surrounding this issue after two decades of war. But, Austin asserted, “We’re not going to make decisions based on emotion,” two of the sources said.
Some in the room took that comment as a direct rebuke of Milley, while others understood the secretary’s remarks as simply saying he wanted the Afghanistan review to proceed in a professional, fact-based manner.
In a statement after the story was published, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said “I will not ordinarily comment on the private deliberations of Principals Committee meetings. But I reject the characterization provided by anonymous sources of the comments made in the meeting. It’s a movie-style rendering of what was — throughout — a professional, thoughtful, fact-based deliberation.”
A Defense Department spokesperson said the Pentagon doesn’t comment on closed-door meetings. But a senior defense official familiar with the exchange told me that Austin was trying to convey that he preferred “a decision-making process that was as dispassionate as possible, and as deliberate and thoughtful and careful as it could be.”
This episode may seem at first glance to be nothing more than a brief moment of lively debate about a major policy issue in which passions momentarily ran high. And in some ways, it was just that.
But it also provides an important window into why successive US administrations, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden, have found ending the US war in Afghanistan so difficult.
Four American administration have overseen the conflict, and each wrestled with the same general problem: Whether doing the increasingly popular thing of ending America’s involvement in the war risks all the gains — namely a more secure Kabul and better rights for women and children — that were won in large part due to the service and sacrifice of US and allied forces over the past 20 years.
That’s a tough decision to make, especially when most experts believe the lives of millions in Afghanistan would get worse without US troops on the ground. What’s more, terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS operate in that country, and a lack of American forces would make it harder to fight them.
That’s partly why Presidents Obama and Trump both vowed to end the war on their watch yet ended up leaving office with at least a few thousand troops still in the country. They were persuaded by military and civilian officials who said the US had less to lose from keeping its forces engaged in the conflict than from leaving it.
That was the main message in a congressional report last month from the Afghanistan Study Group, an independent, bipartisan commission of experts co-chaired by retired Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, former Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, and US Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg.
Yet despite his impassioned plea to continue the fight, Milley himself told a think tank audience in December that the US had only “achieved a modicum of success” in Afghanistan after all this time.
“We have been in a condition of strategic stalemate where the government of Afghanistan was never going to militarily defeat the Taliban,” he acknowledged, “and the Taliban, as long as we were supporting the government of Afghanistan, is never going to militarily defeat the regime.”
President Joe Biden, who promised to end America’s involvement in the war by the end of his first term, has yet to make a final decision about what to do ahead of the May 1 deadline. Multiple sources say all options remain on the table, including the complete withdrawal one.
The Milley-Austin exchange shows just how difficult — and emotionally charged — that decision will ultimately be.