WASHINGTON— Pulling American troops prematurely from Afghanistan would be a "strategic mistake," the Army general nominated to be Joint Chiefs chairman told senators Thursday. Mark Milley also said the United States should keep a "modest number" of forces in Iraq and Syria for now to maintain stability.
Milley assured the Senate Armed Services Committee that he will give his candid advice to President Donald Trump regardless of any potential consequences to himself.
"We've buried soldiers. Arlington is full of our comrades. We understand absolutely full well the hazards of our chosen profession," Milley said, in response to questions from Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, about whether he would be willing to tell Trump that he thought the president was wrong on any issue. "We know what this is about and we are not going to be intimidated into making stupid decisions."
The 61-year-old Milley, who is Trump's pick to replace Gen. Joseph Dunford, said "no one, ever" would intimidate him.
He received a friendly reception from the committee and appears headed for an easy confirmation. Milley is combat-hardened veteran of multiple tours in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including as a senior commander.
If confirmed, Milley, who has been serving as the chief of staff of the Army since August 2015, would take over as Joint Chiefs chairman by the end of September.
Trump has pressed for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan. But so far there have been few reductions, reflecting military commanders' urgings to maintain the status quo for now.
The U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan, Zamal Khalilzad, has said the latest round of talks with the Taliban made substantive progress. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that Washington is hopeful a peace agreement to bring an end to the war can be reached before Sept. 1.
Milley told senators that American's participation in the war would come to an end "when our interests are met," and that includes a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.
"It is slow, it's painful, it's hard," he said.
Khalilzad said Thursday that America is not "cutting and running."
Speaking at a Georgetown University event via a video link from Doha, Qatar, he said the U.S. wants to leave a positive legacy. "We are not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We are looking for a peace agreement," he said.
Asked about increasing tensions with Iran, Milley said he doesn't know that a war would break out. But he said a conflict in the region would have a significant impact on military troop requirements and take away from the Pentagon's emphasis on competition with China and Russia. He also agreed that Iran's malign activities have increased since the U.S. withdrew from an international agreement limiting Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the reduction in sanctions.
Senators also quizzed Milley about the significant number of Pentagon jobs that are vacant or being held by leaders in acting positions without Senate confirmation. He said filling the positions is essential because it reinforces civilian control of the military.
Milley's nomination last December caught some in the Pentagon by surprise, both for the timing and choice.
Normally an announcement on a new chairman would not be expected until early this year. An Air Force chief, Gen. David Goldfein, was considered a strong contender for the job, but officials at the time indicated that Milley had a stronger relationship with the president.
As the Army's leader, Milley helped shepherd the groundbreaking move of women into front-line infantry and other combat positions. More recently, he has worked with his senior officers to reverse a shortfall in Army recruiting when the service fell far short of its annual goal last year.
A native of Winchester, Massachusetts, Milley received his Army commission from Princeton University in 1980. An infantry officer by training, he commanded Special Forces units in a career that included deployments in the invasion of Panama in 1989; the multinational mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina to implement the Dayton Peace Accords; and the Iraq War.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.