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Gen. Mark Milley looks back at the war in Afghanistan during exit interview

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over the course of more than four decades in uniform, Mark Milley has risen from newly minted army officer to seasoned commander of troops in combat to the nation's top-ranking military officer and advisor to the president. But when we caught up with him the other day, he was occupied with less weighty matters, like cleaning out his desk.

MARK MILLEY: We just actually - we just finished cleaning it up...

KELLY: OK.

MILLEY: ...A few minutes ago.

KELLY: Right.

MILLEY: And I've got - I just counted up 16 things that I got to sign here real quick.

KELLY: I bet you do.

MILLEY: And then...

KELLY: Are you actually taking, like, pictures off the walls and all that?

MILLEY: All that. Yeah. All that's been done. Yeah. The only thing left in here is furniture and flags.

KELLY: That is because at the stroke of midnight on Saturday, Milley retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and he sat down for a bunch of exit interviews. Everyone who's ever traveled with him will tell you the general likes to talk. We wanted to spend our time questioning him on Ukraine, the state of our democracy and Afghanistan, a war that ended with the enemy that U.S. and Afghan government forces and allies had been fighting for two decades with that enemy retaking the capital. Preparing to interview Milley, I invited service members and veterans to send us what they would ask the general. Many sent questions about Afghanistan, among them this one. This came from Jason Dempsey. He is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who deployed twice to Afghanistan. He wrote, (reading) you are leaving office without conducting any formal review of how the military contributed to the failure of Afghanistan. Is this a deliberate effort to let others take the blame?

Colonel Dempsey goes on. (Reading) The military was the dominant actor and had a nearly unlimited budget and free rein for almost 20 years to build an Afghan military. How did we build a military that collapsed like a house of cards?

MILLEY: Well, first of all, we have done a formal review, actually. Mr. Dempsey may not have read it or seen it, but there has been - the Department of Defense and the Joint Staff, CentCom and the various commands that are involved have done a very, very thorough review. Now, what we haven't done - and, frankly, I don't think it will be done for years, actually - will be, you know, professional historians. Typically, the level of review that Mr. Dempsey is talking about, I think, is the entire war. And I agree with him. The entire war needs a thorough, rigorous, you know, apolitical, nonpartisan, objective analysis by professional historians. In past wars, that has never been done for years. And I agree with him, by the way, in terms of...

KELLY: You must have done your own private review, your own personal review.

MILLEY: Of course - a hundred percent. Yeah, of course.

KELLY: And I'm sure you took many lessons. Would you point us to the most important one?

MILLEY: Well, I think there's a lot of them. This is a 20-year war, not a 20-day or 20-month war sort of thing. And the outcome is certainly not what any one of us in uniform who ever served there wanted to happen with the enemy occupying the capital of the country that you supported. But the outcome is determined by the cumulative effect of decisions literally over the course of 20 years. And I would argue that there were many decisions made along the way that in hindsight - again, as we get professional historians to dissect this thing, they're going to say, hey; they should have went left. Instead, they went right. That sort of thing - that's going to be done over the course of time.

For me, some of the key lessons - here's a couple of key ones. And by the way, I don't disagree with Mr. Dempsey on a lot of this stuff. So, for example, a key lesson was - I guess I'd put it in the category of risk-taking or audacity. At the very beginning of the operation in Afghanistan, there was an opportunity to kill or capture bin Laden very early on. We didn't do that. We had an opportunity to do it. We consciously made a decision not to do it for a variety of reasons. And then, of course, he's gone until many years later, when we finally do kill him. Had that been done at the time, I think you'd be in a totally different place today than you would have been otherwise.

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLEY: That's an example.

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLEY: I'll give you four or five that you can chew on...

KELLY: I'm sure you can.

MILLEY: ...As you see fit. But another one - here's another one.

KELLY: Give me one more, and then I have a follow-up.

MILLEY: And this...

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLEY: Well, a really big one is the size of the Afghan forces and mirror imaging. What we did back in - I don't know - 2003, 2004 timeframe was we made decisions to organize, train, man and equip an Afghan national security force that looked a lot like either the United States Army or Western European armies to include police forces.

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLEY: So, you know, we were looking at police forces that were doing things like traffic ticket and crime investigations as opposed to a counterinsurgency type police force like you have, say, in Colombia, South America. That's an example.

KELLY: What about...

MILLEY: And I sign up to that, by the way. I think Mr. Dempsey is right in that critique. I don't have all the details yet in terms of an after-action review, but I think that's one that's worth pursuing from a historian.

KELLY: What about responsibility...

MILLEY: That's a very similar, by the way...

KELLY: What about responsibility...

MILLEY: That's a very similar...

KELLY: Yeah.

MILLEY: Yeah. That's a very similar lesson, by the way, that came out of Vietnam - very similar - where the ARVN was made in the mirror image of the United States. So...

KELLY: Well, and this has been called this generation's Vietnam.

MILLEY: That is something...

KELLY: And that prompts the last question before we move on...

MILLEY: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Which is - and I ask this with deep respect for your service. But you belong to an organization that places a premium on seniority, the military. The buck stops...

MILLEY: Sure.

KELLY: ...At the top. What responsibility do you take for the failure that was Afghanistan?

MILLEY: Well, I think that, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the endgame, I certainly have responsibility for the advice that I gave. And I stand by the advice I gave. But in terms of, you know, responsibility - and a lot of people are asking this question and rightly so. But if people are looking for responsibility and accountability as if someone out there is somehow negligent or culpably negligent or somehow is intentionally trying to do things for which they should be, you know, punished in some way, I'm not so sure I sign up to all of that because these - I know people all along the way, going back from 2001 all the way to today. And people may or may not have made correct decisions, but it wasn't because they were incompetent. It wasn't because they were people who were negligent in some manner, shape or form. These are people out there - every single one of them throughout all 20 years - trying to do the right thing at every turn.

But I think that people were - people are looking for a pound of flesh. I think they're looking in the wrong idea here. I think you have a war. It cost a tremendous amount of lives. But what I want every veteran out there that's listening right now, every single one of them - and there's almost a million of us that served in uniform. Over 800,000 served in uniform in Afghanistan. Every single one, from private to general, served with honor, with courage, with skill. And they should hold their head high. Our mission was to defend the United States of America against attack from Afghanistan. We did that for 20 consecutive years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Our exit interview with General Milley continues elsewhere on today's show. We ask about the end of Trump's presidency and how Milley and other officers weighed duty to country versus duty to commander in chief.

MILLEY: We don't take an oath to an individual. We don't take an oath to anything other than the Constitution of the United States. So our loyalty and our - you know, we are duty-bound, we are oath-bound to protect and defend the Constitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM EVIAN SONG, "CAROLINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.