“I think we’re playing directly into the hands of what the Chinese Communist Party wants us to do,” says former Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, author of “Soldier Secretary: Warnings from the Battlefield & the Pentagon About America’s Most Dangerous Enemies.”
“They want us to spend all our money on the military. But you know, as well as I do, a totalitarian and authoritarian regime like the Chinese Communist Party fears one thing,” Miller says.
In this wide-ranging interview, we discuss his vision for major reform of the military and his reflections on Operation Warp Speed, January 6, and the Afghanistan withdrawal.
Jan Jekielek: Chris Miller, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Christopher Miller: Jan, I’m nervous as a kitten right now. I had to write a book to get on your show. Then, Kash Patel, my dear friend and a great American, said, “You’re going on the show.” Thanks for having me. I’m not worthy of being an American Thought Leader. I don’t consider myself that way, but I really appreciate you having me on.
Mr. Jekielek: I find it difficult to believe that you’re nervous as a kitten here, because numerous times in the book, you describe situations that would make most people faint, and I’m not kidding. Those are the moments where you’re calm and collected and know what to do.
You’ve had a very, very interesting career. You started as a private in the infantry. That is the toughest slog, as far as I know. This is what I’ve always heard. You went into special forces and became a special operator. Ultimately, in 2018, you ended up running counter-terrorism at the NSC [National Security Council].
Mr. Miller: Right, for President Trump. Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: It was quite the trajectory to get there. You were confirmed in the Senate 99 to 0, if I recall correctly. Clearly, they were pretty confident in your abilities to do this.
Mr. Miller: I’d certainly had the repetitions in, and I knew the business from one end to the other, to be able to serve at The White House and be in charge of the entire counterterrorism enterprise, which was really, really big in the United States after September 11th, 2001.
Yes, it was surreal. In some ways, I was afforded the opportunity that never would have come to people like me, who just did it the hard way, which was; do your job, work hard and not worry about the political side of things.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me about how you got this appointment in the first place.
Mr. Miller: I don’t know. You would have to ask President Trump. I came out of the doggone. I was a government employee. I was just a civil servant. A buddy of mine was at the National Security Council doing counterterrorism. He was leaving, and he called me and asked if I wanted to come over and interview for his job.
I always tell my children, “You always interview for any job because one, you’re going to learn something. Two, you might get it.” Jan, it was at the White House. I was like, “Sure, I’ll come over for an interview. If nothing else, I’ll have a good story to tell.”
I was a government employee loaned from the Pentagon to work at the National Security Council. We just worked hard. The president wanted to defeat ISIS, and the president did something amazing. Instead of controlling all decision-making at The White House, like the Obama administration had done, he said, “Decentralize and give authority to the people on the ground, so that they can operate more rapidly.”
It resulted in what is probably one of the greatest irregular warfare campaigns. We have conventional war, where it’s tanks and everything. But this is irregular warfare, with small groups of intelligence officers and special operators that then propped up the indigenous forces, in this case, the Kurds, who wanted to fight back and protect themselves from tyranny, which was Assad.
We were part of that change. I was part of it. Kash Patel came in. A bunch of us were part of that change. You’d have to ask the president. I’d like to think, in my internal voice, in my internal narrative, that he recognized we were serious about getting things done and supporting his agenda.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting because it did seem to be very effective, especially in comparison to the prior policy. Part of it, and this is your style, was to go to the people in the field and find out what their realities were.
Mr. Miller: That’s the way I was raised. I had been out of counterterrorism for a bit. I had been working at the Pentagon on some other things, and I wasn’t really clear on exactly where we were in the war against terror. I read through and I did my research. They call it a net assessment, where you figure out what the enemy’s doing and what we’re doing. The key thing was to go down there and listen. Not talk, but listen.
There were some people, Jan, that had been studying and had been a part of the fight against Al-Qaeda for 20 years. I listened to them because I wanted to know where Al-Qaeda was in its evolution as a terrorist organization right now. I found out that Al-Qaeda had seven senior leaders left, and the organization was basically on life support.
I asked, “What happens if we kill the final seven leaders?” Across the board, all the intelligence analysts, the people that had studied this for years said, “Al-Qaeda will be defeated. Defeated.” People would yell at me and critique me, “You can’t defeat terrorism.” I said, “I know we can’t. We can’t defeat terrorism.” Noun versus verb. “We can defeat the noun, Al-Qaeda, as a terrorist organization.”
In a crazy way, Kash and I set out on this journey to try to end the war. Maybe it was completely a crazy idea, but we thought that’s what the American people wanted. We knew that’s what President Trump wanted, to end this war. That’s the crazy story of how we ended up with President Trump executing his policy.
Mr. Jekielek: Just very briefly, what was the outcome?
Mr. Miller: The outcome was that we didn’t get all seven. Unfortunately, we had to lose in Afghanistan. Zawahri replaced bin Laden. Zawahri was bin Laden’s second in command who took over after bin Laden was killed. We couldn’t find out where he was. We thought he was in Pakistan. We didn’t have good intelligence on him.
He was killed by the Biden administration, thank goodness. The reason he was killed by the Biden administration was the collapse of Afghanistan. He somehow came under someone’s control and set up shop in downtown Kabul. His trade craft wasn’t that good, and we found him and killed him.
I thought we were very successful, but we didn’t get the job done before President Trump left the office, which is one of those bittersweet things. I’m glad for America that it worked out, but I’m pretty bitter about the way the war in Afghanistan ended.
Mr. Jekielek: A couple of things about this. When you became Secretary of Defense, you figured out that you could bring down the force from 8,000 to 800, like a 90 percent drop. On the surface, that sounds like setting up for failure. What is it that you saw, exactly?
Mr. Miller: I went into Afghanistan on the 5th of December, 2001 when, tragically, we had a friendly fire incident that killed three Americans, wounded dozens, and killed a whole bunch of Afghans. That was my first experience in Afghanistan, in 2001.
We took the country down, we defeated the Taliban, and drove off Al-Qaeda with 200 special operators and intelligence paramilitary officers. Color me stupid, but I said, “We took the country down with 200. I’m pretty confident that we can keep the Afghan National Security Forces in the fight with 200 advisors to provide air support, logistics support, intelligence support.” With the things that we had done with the Northern Alliance and the anti-Taliban forces in 2001, I felt that we could use the same model to protect the Afghan National Security Forces, and force an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
That’s where I got that from. We did this huge war game. We didn’t bring in the bigwigs and the brass because, Jan, it was too politicized. I knew, but the army did not. The military said, “We cannot go below 8,000.” I knew we could go below 8,000. They were playing this party line with President Trump that said, “If we go below 8,000, the government will collapse. We’ll lose.” I knew the number was 800.
Mr. Jekielek: Based on this war game, basically.
Mr. Miller: Yes, based on the war game. The idea was to keep a counterterrorism force out in the desert, away from the population, where we could keep intelligence on Al-Qaeda and ISIS, so that our terrorist enemies couldn’t catch their breath. We’d keep them on the move, and also have our intelligence assets available so that we could keep track of them. That was the idea.
We could also provide some support to the Afghan National Security Forces with some contractor support, some small special operators to advise, assist, and provide them critical capabilities to keep them fighting.
Mr. Jekielek: In the end, basically President Biden saw through the plan to withdraw, which I think was the original plan of President Trump as well. Would you say that’s accurate? Then, how did things collapse so terribly?
Mr. Miller: That was two questions within one, Jan. You’re a genius at doing that. President Trump wanted to end the war and get our major military forces out of Afghanistan, and other places as well. I fully supported that. That’s one of the reasons why I was more than happy to take the job, because I agreed on this as acting Secretary of Defense.
We pay about $20 billion a year for our military special operators, who are paid, trained, equipped to be very low-key behind enemy lines. In this case, they wouldn’t have been behind enemy lines. In this case, they were in a politically sensitive environment, to make sure to protect American equities and advance our interests.
We also have a cadre of extraordinary Americans who do paramilitary work in the intelligence community. The idea was that we would maintain that force. Those are called light footprint, clandestine, low-visibility forces that could still maintain our counterterrorism presence there. That was what President Trump would’ve done.
I feel very, very comfortable and confident that’s what we would have recommended to President Trump. I’m not going to speak for President Trump, because anybody that speaks for President Trump doesn’t understand President Trump. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. He’s a negotiator and he’s a business person. The negotiations with the Taliban were not done yet.
There would have been the ability, and I think President Trump would have accepted a small, light footprint of special operators and intelligence forces, still in Afghanistan. But you asked about the Biden administration.
I have no idea. Jan, that was August 13th. Friday the 13th was the day I knew we lost the war. I had been following this very closely, and there was a number given that the Biden administration was going to keep 800 military people in Afghanistan, which we typically do for security assistance.
They work out of the embassy, defense attaches, etc. I was like, “Oh, good. They’re doing our plan. That’s exactly how I would do it.” You’d have your people look as if, “No, we’re just here, 800 people for security and whatnot.” That’s how this works.
Then, I watched the news that morning and saw that the Afghan National Security Forces had collapsed. They were literally at the intersections outside Kabul, the same intersections that I had always obsessed over when I was doing combat operations in Afghanistan.
The thought of the Taliban sitting there, massing their combat power to get enough so they could go into the city, I knew that the war was over. Because you expect that, Jan, when your enemy masses. I could just see the Toyota Hilux trucks lined up on the road as far as you can see. I could see this in my mind’s eye, with the American way of war. That’s what we’re waiting for, targets. I expected our warplanes to swoop in, our rockets to swoop in and just destroy this long column, like it happened in Iraq and at the end of Desert Storm. That didn’t happen. I knew the war was over at that point.
Mr. Jekielek: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I believe in the book you say, “No one in the military really wanted to leave Afghanistan, because everybody knew when that happened, it was going to turn really bad.” No one wanted to be responsible for that.
Mr. Miller: My issue is that it was a very conventional military way of thinking, which is tanks, aircraft carriers, exquisite fighter jets, and lots of people. My point was that thinking is not appropriate for this situation. I don’t think it was appropriate after we took down the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. At the end of the day, the strategic mistake we made was that it should have been a special operations war. We should have just kept a handful of people there, but instead we brought in lots of conventional forces.
It was just the Pentagon doing what the Pentagon does, which is every issue is a nail with a hammer. There’s no original thought required. The irregular warfare way of small footprint, using information operations, supporting those that want to protect their freedom and fight, that would have been the way to go. I don’t blame the Afghan Security Forces at all.
When we were there, we were willing to do the fighting for them. Why wouldn’t you let someone else do the fighting? That’s the genius of special operations, in particular Army Green Berets that are very small forces that train and advise larger indigenous forces in the host nation. That’s where we should have gone instead of factoring in all these huge formations.
But that’s the way the Pentagon thinks. That’s really the point of my book; we’re doing the same thing again. We make the enemy out so that our Pentagon can fight the way they want. We telegraph our punch every time.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to switch gears here.
Mr. Miller: That was the setup for China. Jan, that was the setup for China.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, and I fell right into it. Of course, you were an expert in irregular warfare, which is a very different approach from the conventional warfare at the Pentagon. The CCP practices unrestricted warfare. Every possible method, and anything available to the state can be a tool of warfare, and is used as a tool of warfare.
What I’ve discovered, having had many China experts and military people on the show, is that in the U.S. this concept is still not largely understood, even to this day. Even though Chinese military colonels wrote about it a very long time ago, and explained it in quite a bit of detail.
Mr. Miller: I feel very confident that if you go into every Army Green Beret team room, a team is 12 people, you will find that book, Unrestricted Warfare somewhere on a bookshelf or on somebody’s desk. There are two colonels that wrote that. When did that come out, in the ’90s? In Patton, the movie, General Patton is in North Africa and he’s fighting Rommel. All of a sudden he goes, “I got it.” He’s reading Rommel’s, Infantry Attacks, was the book.
They have given us the book on what they’re doing, and it’s so clear. Jan. You know as well as I do that they are executing exactly along that strategic plan that is laid out, which is total unrestricted warfare. I’ll give a shout-out to President Trump. I’m not chilling here, but he recognized that the key element that could impact the Chinese Communist Party was economic warfare, not military warfare.
Still, we’re so out of balance in this country with our budget, where we put about a trillion dollars into defense. It’s actually 60 percent, but I try to be nice. I say it’s 50 percent of our discretionary spending, meaning the money that is available beyond Medicare, Medicaid, social security. This is the money for roads, national parks, and libraries, etc.
You’ve heard about DIME, it’s D-I-M-E. It’s the organizing construct for how we make strategy and how we utilize American power; diplomacy, information, military, economic, DIME. You want them all in balance. In many ways, that’s the art and science of strategy.
Right now, 50 percent is the M of the DIME, military. Information doesn’t even make it onto the chart. Diplomacy comes in, maybe five-ish percent. Economics, it’s really, really hard to even pull up the budget figures. I’m getting these from the congressional budget office. I’m not making this up, because I was interested in this.
We’re so out of balance, and that was the genius of that recognition—the thing that we need to compete with them on is economic, and I would argue, information as well. The military piece is what they want, Jan. They want us to spend all our money on the military. But you know as well as I do, a totalitarian and authoritarian regime like the Chinese Communist Party fears one thing, the instability of their population.
How do they maintain control? They have to have the other. They have to have an enemy that’s out to get them. Right now, that’s exactly what we are portraying ourselves as, when we put all this money into the military arm element of power.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to jump back a little bit. I’m not letting you off the hook with China yet. We’re going to come back to China, but something that’s very interesting. You have a chapter at the end of the book where you offer prescriptions. Your prescription also sounds kind of counterintuitive. You’re saying that we really need to cut military spending, and that is actually going to save a lot more lives and make the U.S. war fighting capability much more effective. Please explain that.
Mr. Miller: Thank you for actually reading my book and getting to the last chapter, which is an enormous accomplishment. No, I wrote the book to be accessible. Here’s what I learned from age 17-years-old to when I finally left government at age 55. You saw this with the Reagan administration. The only way you can force new thinking is to cut the budget. You have to reduce resources to the bureaucracy. That forces prioritization, and that forces new thinking. That’s what I’m trying to get across.
Then the next question is, “How do you do this?” I know because I’ve met these incredibly talented people that are in our Pentagon and in our National Security establishment, who are young, creative people. They see the fallacy of what we’re doing right now, which is refighting the Cold War. When you have a trillion dollars a year, there is no original thinking required. We’re playing directly into the hands of what the Chinese Communist Party wants us to do.
What I’m trying to get at by cutting the budget is that we have to have new operational and strategic concepts for dealing with the Chinese; an information, cyber, and indirect approach. There’s a huge population out there that are not fans of the Chinese Communist Party. We have the ability to influence that, and advance our goals, and also keep them from being too bellicose.
Mr. Jekielek: I can imagine the argument that you hear when you say, “Look, we’ve got to cut defense spending.” People would say, “That’s going to cost lives.” This is probably the response, correct?
Mr. Miller: You always get that anytime you try to do something new at the Pentagon. You know you’re right when they throw that red herring on the table. I was a civilian official. Civilians provide oversight of the military. That’s how our republic works. As soon as you do something that the uniformed military doesn’t want, in this case cutting force structure, cutting weapon systems, and doing something different, that’s the exact line you’re going to get.
Then, they offload all the risk onto you as a civilian. I’m good with that. I said, “I’ll take it. Put some more risk on me. That’s what I get paid for.” They always use that line, and I think it’s a bankrupt idea. You brought it up earlier, “We’re going to lose more lives if we keep doing the same old thing that everyone knows.”
Our playbook has nothing new in it, Jan. It’s just rinse and repeat, basically since World War II. It’s very easy for the Chinese Communist Party to operate against us, because they have our playbook. We have their playbook too. We have Unrestricted Warfare, but we are not attacking it that way.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s a huge question for me. You read Stealth War, General Rob Spalding’s book. The thing that came out in my discussions with him is that people at the Pentagon don’t want to think this way. Whereas, you make the case in your book that special operators are a whole division that functions very, very differently than the conventional warfare division of the U.S. military. It’s just that it’s never playing the major role, except perhaps in some of these campaigns, like early in Afghanistan in 2001.
Mr. Miller: Right. I used to get really upset with the bogeyman of the military industrial complex. It’s so easy. It just highlights what President Eisenhower was talking about. Here’s the big revelation for me. I used to get angry about it.
“How could we have a system, where we have five major defense companies that make oodles and oodles of money beyond all human understanding, and we have these small startup tech companies that have these incredible technologies and ideas that can’t break through?”
Then, I’m not angry anymore, and it’s been very helpful for me. I sleep a lot better at night now, because the defense prime contractors are doing exactly what the incentive structure is set up to do. We have to change the incentive structure. That’s why I talk about reducing spending.
There doesn’t have to be these hard choices about weapon systems, procurement, and how we do business when there’s literally trucks full of money. It’s been freeing in some ways, and I’m not so angry anymore. They’re doing exactly what they should be doing in a free market.
But it’s not a free market for military equipment. That’s my point, is we need to establish a new incentive structure to break through that. That will result in different operating concepts, different weapon systems and different ways of thinking that, in the long run, will end up saving American lives, or at least those in our armed forces.
Mr. Jekielek: Listen, I have you here in this seat.
Mr. Miller: It’s the hot seat, Jan, am I sweating?
Mr. Jekielek: People keep talking to me about the Chinese spy balloon that got shot down, and everything associated with that. Most recently, we learned that, actually this balloon was tracked from the moment it was launched in China. What happened with this whole situation? How do you explain this?
Mr. Miller: How do I explain this? I can’t, right now. I’m like the rest of America. I’m like, “What is going on here?” The president gets what’s called best military advice from the chairman, the senior ranking military officer. He’s called the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His counterpart, the person that his boss is, is the Secretary of Defense. That’s the position I held. What was the best military advice they provided to the president? Either he didn’t follow it, or he did follow it.
If he did follow it, that resulted in a shoot-down after the spy balloon went all the way across America. I know what they’re going to say, “We collected all sorts of great intelligence on them.” I talk about this in the book, about the intelligence community, about how it’s become unmoored from civilian oversight and control. I really want to learn more about that, because I don’t know how to answer your question. At this point, we should be able to answer the question, I would argue.
Here’s the other one that really bugs me. You triggered me on this one. A trillion dollars, and we cannot take control of a balloon without having to send up a $100-million fighter plane and shoot a $400,000 missile. That’s the cost curve I’m talking about. That’s what the Chinese expect us to do, that we will bankrupt ourselves.
We have all these exquisite weapons systems and we have so few of them. War is changing. We’re going from exquisite, expensive stuff with very few of them. We’re going back. You’re seeing it in Ukraine right now, with unmanned aerial systems or uncrewed aerial systems and other things.
We’re going back to the cheap and plentifu