Senators question Afghanistan commander nominee on turning around 17-year war

Senators question Afghanistan commander nominee on turning around 17-year war
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The special operations commander nominated to take over command of the war in Afghanistan on Tuesday was asked by senators about his strategy for the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Scott Miller repeatedly pledged to further assess issues in Afghanistan in the face of senators skeptical about how to proceed in the long-running war.

In a largely genial hearing, several senators said they supported Miller and expected him to be easily confirmed to become the next commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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But senators also asked Miller what he plans to do differently after 17 years of war and nearly one year into the Trump administration’s strategy for the region.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her More Massachusetts Voters Prefer Deval Patrick for President than Elizabeth Warren Trump's trade war — firing all cannons or closing the portholes? MORE (D-Mass.) pushed Miller the hardest on the issue, quoting several past defense leaders as saying Afghanistan reached a turning point.

“We’ve supposedly turned the corner so many times that it seems now we’re going in circles,” Warren said. “So let me just ask you, do you envision turning another corner during your tenure as commander? After 17 years of war, what are you going to do differently to bring this conflict to an end?”

Miller replied by acknowledging the length of the war, saying “that’s generational.”

“I can’t guarantee you a timeline or an end date — I know that going into this position — or offer necessarily a turning point, unless there is one, unless there’s something to report back and something has changed,” he continued.

Warren pushed back, saying Afghanistan is “in crisis,” listing the Taliban’s territorial gains, Afghan security force losses, spiking food insecurity and political corruption, among other benchmarks.

“Some of those underlying challenges will also have to be addressed,” Miller said of political issues in Afghanistan.

Miller is currently the commander of Joint Special Operations Command. In that capacity, he oversees the elite Special Mission Units, including the Navy’s SEAL Team Six and the Army’s Delta Force.

Asked Tuesday by Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerGoogle says it continues to allow apps to access Gmail user data Trump cancels Mississippi rally due to hurricane Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke MORE (R-Miss.) whether he agrees with an inspector general assessment that there has been a lack of progress in recent months, Miller said he believes the counterterrorism mission is going well but has to further assess the train, advise and assist mission.

“As we look at progress, first and foremost, I go back to the core objective and that is al Qaeda, [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], preventing sanctuary, preventing external operations. So there’s progress there,” Miller said. “As it relates to advising and assisting the Afghans to harden, fill in some of that space against the Taliban, I would need to go forward and make an assessment of where we stand there.”

Asked by committee ranking member Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedNew York Times: Trump mulling whether to replace Mattis after midterms Overnight Defense: Biden honors McCain at Phoenix memorial service | US considers sending captured ISIS fighters to Gitmo and Iraq | Senators press Trump on ending Yemen civil war Senators press Trump administration on Yemen civil war MORE (D-R.I.) about the capabilities of Afghan special operations forces and Afghan airpower, Miller said he agrees those are the country’s most important military power against the Taliban. But, he added, “I’d like to look, go forward, take some time to make an assessment.”

“I have personal experience with the ground forces, limited experience with the air forces, but that’d be an area I’d like to assess,” Miller said.

Further asked by Reed about the military holding back data about U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Miller likewise said he needs to further assess why that’s happening.

“I am committed to being very transparent with this committee, as required. As for details that are being on hold, I would need to go forward and understand why we’re holding back that information,” Miller said.

Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofePentagon releases report on sexual assault risk Trump privately calls Mattis ‘Moderate Dog’: report Cruz gets help from Senate GOP in face of serious challenge from O’Rourke MORE (R-Okla.) asked Miller whether he believes the military has the right amount of resources in Afghanistan. Miller said his “instinct” is that it does, but pledged to “come back to you with a better assessment.”

Inhofe, a senior committee member who has been leading hearings while Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ MORE (R-Ariz.) is at home battling brain cancer, later told Miller that continuing on the same path as the last 17 years “is not going to be acceptable.” 

“There is obviously an expectation that you’ll bring something in that is going to offer something new,” Inhofe said. “I think we probably ought to, after you’ve been on the job for a while after you’re confirmed, to come and give some new insights. Because to continue to do the same thing that’s led us in 17 years is not going to be acceptable.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE announced a new strategy for Afghanistan last summer that included bolstering U.S. forces in Afghanistan by a few thousand to help end a stalemate. Trump’s strategy also took away a timeline for withdrawal, saying it would be based on the conditions on the ground.

The United States has about 16,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to figures cited by senators Tuesday. The troops are on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions.