Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Courtney Kube

KABUL, Afghanistan — When Gen. Scott Miller took over the war in Afghanistan on Sept. 2, Afghan soldiers were being killed and wounded at near record numbers.

He instituted a more aggressive policy of helping the Afghan military track and defeat the Taliban — what he calls "regaining the tactical initiative" — but in an exclusive interview with NBC News on Tuesday, his first since taking command of U.S. and coalition forces here, he also says he recognizes that the solution in Afghanistan will be political, not military.

"This is not going to be won militarily," Miller said. "This is going to a political solution."

"My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily. So if you realize you can't win militarily at some point, fighting is just, people start asking why. So you do not necessarily wait us out, but I think now is the time to start working through the political piece of this conflict."

Speaking from the Resolute Support headquarters building in Kabul, Miller said he knew early on that he needed to turn the tables on the Taliban and go after them.

"We are more in an offensive mindset and don't wait for the Taliban to come and hit [us]," he said. "So that was an adjustment that we made early on. We needed to because of the amount of casualties that were being absorbed."

Gen. Scott MillerMassoud Hossaini / AP

Afghan Security Forces suffered 1,000 casualties in August and September, according to the Pentagon.

Miller has eliminated layers of approval for the troops advising the Afghans, giving them the authority to make decisions and move quickly around the battlefield as the need arises, and moving troops and equipment to areas where they can advise and empower the Afghan military and police in their fight against the Taliban.

These expeditionary advisory teams are intended to move to areas where they can join up with reliable partners, specific Afghan forces who the U.S. and NATO leaders are confident have stronger capabilities and can take on the Taliban. The U.S. advisers can bring overhead surveillance, fire support, and medevac capabilities with them.

"None of this is risk free," Miller said. Consolidating Afghan forces to go on the offensive is dangerous. "They take casualties, but the casualties are much less when they're moving against the Taliban."

In 2018, Afghanistan's capital Kabul has had 19 high-profile suicide attacks, Miller said. He added that ISIS Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the terror group, has also been attacking and has "resonance" in urban areas.

"ISIS-K, they're dangerous. They have external aspirations, they have different capabilities, and they are connected outside of Afghanistan," he said.

Miller said ISIS-K fighters are more educated and are trying to set up their own state in Afghanistan. "That's part of the playbook is to build up those administrative functions."

Memos taken from an ISIS-K fighter offer a glimpse into some of those efforts. A U.S. official showed NBC News official ISIS-K documents with letterhead reading "Islamic State of Khorasan." One memo even lays out "budgetary considerations" as part of ISIS-K operations.

While ISIS-K is primarily in southern Nangahar and Kunar provinces, Miller said the group is trying to grow.

"Al Qaeda is the other group that we look at very closely," he said. "They are down but not out, and again it goes back to not just what's happening here in Afghanistan, but what's happening external to Afghanistan as they build their external networks."

Miller believes that without stability in Afghanistan, terror groups like ISIS-K and al Qaeda will attack U.S. and allies outside the region.

"I try to simplify to everyone here what this is all about, it’s about protecting the citizens of your [own] country," he said, referring to the NATO nations participating in the mission here.

'I don't want to be Pollyannaish about this'

Miller said he does not feel pressure from Washington to show results.

"I naturally feel compelled to try to set the conditions for a political outcome. So, pressure from that standpoint, yes. I don't want everyone to think this is forever."

Having led the war for about eight weeks now, Miller said one thing he wasn't expecting when he took over was the number of Taliban fighters laying down their arms to talk about a possible settlement.

Miller says he is a realist on the issue of possible reconciliation with the Taliban. "I don't want to be Pollyannaish about this," he said. Miller says he is pragmatic about a possible settlement.

"I see paths, some of them are risk filled," Miller said. "So rather than optimistic, I say pragmatic."

Still, Miller hopes to one day leave Afghanistan a better place than it is today.

"This is my last assignment as a soldier in Afghanistan. I don't think they'll send me back here in another grade. When I leave this time I'd like to see peace and some level of unity as we go forward." Miller said peace here "makes it much easier to safeguard our vital national interests in the region."

During his previous tours in Afghanistan, Miller got to know Afghan Gen. Abdul Raziq, a powerful Afghan police leader. Two weeks ago, Miller was near Raziq when one of his bodyguards opened fire on a group of Afghan and U.S. military leaders in the governor's compound in Kandahar, killing Raziq. Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley, the U.S. general who oversees the NATO advisory mission in southern Afghanistan, and an unidentified civilian were also wounded.

Miller doesn't believe he was a target. "I was not on the gun line," he said. "If it had gone on would the rest of us become part of the gunline? That's possible."

Miller called Razik "a friend and a partner" and "somebody I knew very well." But, once again, Miller saw the attack through a lens of pragmatism.

"He knew he was at risk. We all know we're at risk. It's Afghanistan."