KABUL – In his three combat tours in Afghanistan, Gen. Mark Milley saw the Taliban as a formidable foe, one unlikely to “fade away in the dust,” as he put it in 2013. This week, Milley, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat across a negotiating table with leaders of the group that seemed defeated after the U.S. invaded in 2001 but will remain a force even as the U.S. sends troops home.
Milley held an unannounced meeting with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar, to discuss military aspects of last February’s U.S.-Taliban agreement, which was intended to set the stage for direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
He then flew to Kabul to consult with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Milley said he emphasized to both parties the need to rapidly reduce levels of violence.
“Everything else hinges on that,” he told reporters from The Associated Press and two other news organizations.
Although Milley reported no breakthrough, his Taliban meetings represent a remarkable milestone — America’s top general coming face-to-face with representatives of the group that ruled Afghanistan until it was ousted 19 years ago this month in the early stages of what became America’s longest war.
Milley served his first tour in Afghanistan as a brigade commander with the 10th Mountain Division in 2003, returned five years later as a deputy commander of the 101st Airborne Division, and then served as head of the international coalition's Joint Command in Kabul from May 2013 to February 2014.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime, running al-Qaida out of the country and laying the groundwork for a global “war on terrorism.” It turned into something more ambitious but less well-defined and became far more costly in blood and treasure.
Milley believes the United States still has an important national interest in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida militants plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But it's unclear — probably to him and to the Taliban as well — how Joe Biden as president will approach the evolving Afghan-Taliban peace process. Milley is in the second year of a four-year term as Joint Chiefs chairman and is likely to be a source of military continuity as the Biden administration settles in.