Joint Chiefs Chair Milley Undermined Trump, Pentagon Officials on Afghanistan: Report Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General. Mark Milley participates in a news briefing at the Pentagon May 6, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Charlie McCarthy | Monday, 17 May 2021 12:31 PM
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was reportedly caught on classified intercepts undermining then-President Donald Trump and the Pentagon's civilian leadership as they worked to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in the waning days of the administration.
Trump administration officials reviewed classified National Security Agency communications that led them to believe Milley was undercutting the president and Defense Department leaders, Axios reported, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the documents.
Milley's alleged subversion came because he and other top generals reportedly did not agree with Trump's plans to drastically reduce or completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The intercepts included a conversation between a senior Afghan official and an American who had spoken to Milley, with the American saying he was told the Joint Chiefs chairman had no confidence in the civilian Pentagon leadership, Axios reported. The DOD was led at the time by Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller and chief of staff Kash Patel, among others.
In another intercept, Afghan officials were alleged to have understood that the top U.S. generals planned to defy the president's order for a fast troop drawdown and would, at best, slowly respond to Trump's instructions in hopes of delaying and hopefully stopping the pullout.
The intercepts prompted conversations among senior Trump officials about the potential undercutting of civilian control of the military. However, the chaotic final days of the administration overshadowed the serious issue.
For one thing, Axios reported there was a general lack of interest among Trump’s staff in being the one who would take the intercepts to the president "because you didn't want to get sucked into some weird scandal and be testifying," a source told the outlet.
Axios reported Trump aide John McEntee, with the president's blessing, told retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor on Nov. 9, 2020, that his job was to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa, and to complete the troop withdrawal from Germany. McGregor was given the mission just moments after he'd been offered the position of adviser to Miller.
When news of a presidential directive delivered to Miller spread throughout the Pentagon, top military brass, including Milley, were appalled that such policy would be conducted without their consultation, input, and a process for gaming out consequences or offering alternatives.
Neither White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, nor the office of the staff secretary were told about the directive, Axios reported.
The leaders soon realized they faced an "an off-the-books operation by the commander in chief himself," according to Axios. The nature of the plan was likely due to a belief espoused by Trump and his top allies that military leaders had obstructed presidents from troop drawdowns for years by disputing that there was any consensus within the Pentagon and leaking worst-case scenarios to media outlets.
Milley, who remains Joint Chiefs chairman under President Joe Biden, has approached his job by providing "timely and thorough advice" to civilian leaders, according to spokesman Col. Dave Butler.
"General Milley has been, and still is, dedicated to recognizing and following the laws and intent that govern civilian control of the military," Butler said. "He has consciously and deliberately supported civilian control of the military throughout his tenure and before."
Biden announced on April 14 that all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks launched by Al Qaeda, which used Afghanistan as its base. The U.S.-led invasion of the country came just weeks after the horror in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
Trump had long sought to extricate troops from hotspots worldwide and told Axios he "built a train that couldn't be stopped," citing a March 2020 phone conversation with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as the reason no U.S. troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan in more than a year. (The call was believed to be the first conversation between a U.S. president and a Taliban leader.)
Trump said he warned Baradar that if the Taliban launched an offensive, the U.S. would return to Afghanistan and "hit you harder than you've ever been hit before," though the Taliban have disputed that.
Critics have said Biden's withdrawal could lead to the Taliban regaining full control of Afghanistan and returning the country to totalitarian rule.