WASHINGTON — Withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan too soon would be a “strategic mistake,” President Trump’s nominee for Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman said Thursday, clearly outlining the Pentagon’s position as the White House wrestles with whether to pull military forces and end the 18-year war.
“I think it is slow, it’s painful, it’s hard — I spent a lot of my life in Afghanistan — but I also think it’s necessary,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the nominee, said about the American military’s continuing mission at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
General Milley’s tough line on the war comes as the United States and the Taliban navigate their seventh round of peace negotiations.
Earlier peace dialogues have focused on two main planks: the withdrawal of Western troops and the Taliban’s pledge to deny any safe haven to terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the veteran American diplomat leading the negotiations with the Taliban, sought to make clear that the United States was not just looking for an exit ramp from the war.
“We’re not cutting and running,” Mr. Khalilzad said in a taped video statement to a Georgetown University forum on ensuring that women and civil society are included in the peace talks. “We’re not looking for a withdrawal agreement. We’re looking for a peace agreement.”
On Tuesday, the Taliban and some representatives from the Afghan government agreed to a basic outlines for negotiating a political future and reducing civilian casualties. Until this week, the Taliban had refused to meet with the Afghan government, which it described as an American puppet regime.
General Milley, who is currently the Army chief of staff, said during his testimony that there had been “some progress” in the peace efforts.
But a Defense Department official separately told The New York Times that the Pentagon is privately urging Mr. Trump to keep Special Operations forces in Afghanistan even if all other American troops depart as a result of a peace agreement. Mr. Trump has resisted the idea, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal policy debate.
In an interview with Fox News this month, Mr. Trump said he wanted to withdraw but was later talked into staying the course — for now — by military officials.
The American-led mission in Kabul has warned of the continuing threat posed to the United States by the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan. Military officials have predicted that the Taliban would not be able to defeat Islamic State fighters without help from American forces.
General Milley’s confirmation hearing comes as much of the Pentagon’s leadership is in turmoil.
On Wednesday, past accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Gen. John E. Hyten, the Air Force general who is nominated to be the next Joint Chiefs vice chairman. In a statement on Thursday, the Air Force said an internal investigation found insufficient evidence against General Hyten.
And on Sunday, Adm. William F. Moran, who was nominated to be the Navy’s next chief, abruptly announced his retirement, citing an continuing ethics investigation. There is also no Senate-confirmed defense secretary, but the confirmation hearing for the department’s acting chief, Mark T. Esper, is set for next week.
At his own hearing on Thursday, General Milley also said Iran’s “malign activity” has increased after the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers last year.