ArmyGen. Mark Milley, making a pitch to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers at a confirmation hearing Thursday that it would be a “strategic mistake” to prematurely pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and that the international order is facing its greatest challenges since the fall of the Soviet Union.
President Trump has campaigned on ending wars abroad and bringing American troops home, and has made no secret about wanting to draw down the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Peace talks led by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad with the government in Kabul and with the Taliban have raised hopes a withdrawal timetable could soon be announced.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Gen. Milley, the current Army chief of staff, said the U.S. is “living in a period of great-power competition with a very complex and dynamic security environment. [International order is] currently under the most stress since the Cold War.”
Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe also announced Thursday plans for an expedited confirmation hearing for Mark T. Esper, acting defense secretary whom President Trump has nominated for the permanent Pentagon post. Lawmakers are anxious to move the nomination along, as the Pentagon has not had a permanent secretary since James Mattis resigned more than six months ago.
If confirmed, he will replace Gen. Joseph Dunford who has held the chairman position since 2015 when the four-star Marine Corps general’s second term ends on October 1. His selection by Mr. Trump was something of a surprise, as Mr. Mattis was said to favor another candidate.
Gen. Milley, who was appointed to the top Army job by President Obama in 2015, has made modernization of the Army a top priority. He has held command assignments with the 82nd Airborne Division, 101st Airborne Division, 5th Special Forces Group and III Corps and served three combat command tours in Iraq.
The 61-year-old Massachusetts native said the U.S. has been “very successful” in Syria in destroying the Islamic State caliphate, but added that a modest number of troops should remain in Syria and Iraq “in order to maintain stability.”
Committee members pressed Gen. Milley on hot-button issues including ongoing tensions with Iran, the high number of vacancies at the Pentagon, sexual misconduct in the armed forces, and the threat posed by rivals such as China and Russia.
The general told the committee he believes “China is the main challenge to U.S. national security over the next 50 to 100 years.” He characterized China not as an enemy of the U.S. but rather an adversary and a competitor.
On Tehran, Gen. Milley said Iran has “been a malign actor for many, many years not just since the [U.S.] withdrawal from [2015 nuclear deal] but their intensity of malign activity, I think, has increased.”
Several members questioned Gen. Milley on how he would combat sexual assault scandals that have plagued the armed forces and service academies in the last year. “Sexual assault is unconscionable, it’s a crime,” he said.
The solution, he added, “lies with the commanders and to the training of them in order to make sure they understand the techniques of good order and discipline and holding them accountable.”
During his tenure as Army chief of staff, Gen. Milley oversaw the move of women into front-line infantry and combat positions. He also spearheaded the opening of the Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, a groundbreaking initiative that now serves as the epicenter for the Army’s response to 21st century threats.
There was little sense the general’s nomination will face much opposition.
“I think he’ll do a great job. Dunford did a good job, [Gen. Milley] will do a great job,” said Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republican.
“I’ve worked pretty closely with him on issues and I have confidence in him,” added Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat.
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