The Trump administration is looking to change America’s strategy in Afghanistan from waging peace to waging war.
In an effort to turn around the faltering Afghan war, Trump’s top foreign policy and defense advisers, led by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, are recommending that the president send around 3,000 to 5,000 US troops into the country, reports the Washington Post.
They would primarily serve as trainers to Afghan forces who are currently fighting the Taliban, the hardline Islamist group that America and NATO set out to dislodge more than 15 years ago.
But the country’s top intelligence official isn’t sure it’s such a good idea. "The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in (the) military assistance by the United States and its partners," Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee today.
Still, Trump is expected to accept the recommendation to increase troops before a May 25 NATO summit in Brussels. If he does, it would mark a dramatic shift in America’s longest war. The US has lost 1,835 troops since the war began in October 2001, including three so far this year.
First, it would change America’s approach in the Afghanistan War, the longest in US history. While the Obama administration sought a political, diplomatic solution with the Taliban, an option also considered by George W. Bush, the Trump administration wants to pursue a military solution to defeat a group that has control over 40 percent of territory and 8.4 million Afghans, about a third of the country’s population.
Second, it’s the latest and most significant example of the Trump administration’s unusual pattern of giving immense authority to the military to make enormous decisions on their own — and without needing prior approval from Trump or his top civilian advisers. That marks an enormous change from ways previous presidents of both parties have handled war fighting.
Both of these developments are massive deals not only for the war in Afghanistan but for the way America goes to war in general.
Trump wants to change how the US wages war
The attacks on September 11, 2001, started it all. At the time, the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan and harbored al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that planned and executed the 9/11 attack.
On October 7, 2001, President Bush gave a speech to tell the American people that he had authorized strikes “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” By June 2002, a new government was put in place led by Hamid Karzai, meant to take over governance responsibilities after the Taliban.
But Karzai had little influence outside of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and the fighting didn’t stop. It still hasn’t, and Americans have been in Afghanistan trying to give the new government space to mature and train the Afghan military to fight on its own.
During the Bush years, though, Iraq was a higher priority, and US commanders in Afghanistan consistently complained that they didn’t get enough troops or weaponry to truly defeat the Taliban. When Bush left office, there were about 36,000 US troops in the country, far less than his advisers had advocated.
Barack Obama took office promising to change all of that. He had once famously derided Iraq as a “dumb war” that took the Pentagon’s eye off the ball in Afghanistan, which he believed to be the more important conflict because the country had once sheltered al-Qaeda. Obama believed a surge of military pressure provided by American and NATO troops in Afghanistan would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to seek a political resolution to the war.
In 2009, he ordered the Pentagon to send around 30,000 to Afghanistan, pushing the size of the total US presence there to around 94,000. The hope was to stop the Taliban’s battlefield momentum and push it out of at least some of the territory it controlled until the Afghan military could take over the fighting. With this sudden surge of forces, the Taliban would have no choice but to chat with the Americans, or so the thinking went.
It was an approach Obama had considered for some time. “We should pursue an integrated strategy that reinforces our troops in Afghanistan and works to remove the limitations placed by some NATO allies on their forces,” he wrote in the summer of 2007. “Our strategy must also include sustained diplomacy to isolate the Taliban and more effective development programs that target aid to areas where the Taliban are making inroads.”
During the Obama presidency, that approach became conventional wisdom inside and outside the Pentagon. The Taliban had renounced al-Qaeda, had never carried out a terror attack outside the borders of Afghanistan, and had — during their years controlling the country — formal diplomatic relations with the West. These were the kinds of Islamist militants, the thinking continued, that the US could do business with.
For a little while, there were signs that it might work. But the exploratory, secret talks held between the United States and the Taliban didn’t amount to much and eventually stopped.
So the fighting continued, as did Obama’s desire to seek a political solution while getting US forces out of there. Today, around 8,400 American troops, once numbering around 100,000, remain in Afghanistan to advise the Afghan military and also conduct counterterrorism operations.
The Afghans have some work to do to stop the Taliban’s return while also fighting off “20-odd terrorist groups that operate in Afghanistan,” according to Marine Brig. Gen. Roger B. Turner Jr.’s comments to the Marine Times.
If one of the main goals America had going into Afghanistan was to stop the Taliban from running the place again — and potentially allowing the country to again serve as a safe haven for terrorists looking for ways to hit the West — it can safely be said that the US has failed.
Take these statistics, which come not from outside critics but from the Pentagon itself. From June 1 to November 30, 2016, there were about 3,700 casualties. In the same time period, effective attacks against Afghan forces increased by 60 percent with around 879 attacks per month, or 5,271 total. A United Nations estimate says the Taliban now controls more territory than they did in 2001, when the US-led invasion began.
Put more bluntly, millions of Afghans in eastern and southern Afghanistan again live under de facto Taliban control, which has particularly dire implications for the country’s women.
Russia spent years fighting in Afghanistan. It’s now helping the Taliban battle the US.
To make this comeback, the Taliban has had some help from — wait for it — the Russians. Because of course.
Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that Russia provides “assistance” to the Taliban in the form of equipment and small arms. He also called for thousands more troops to help break what he calls a “stalemate” in Afghanistan where America, NATO, and the Taliban are unable to make significant gains. Nicholson, by the way, is the commander who ordered the military to use the “mother of all bombs” — the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat — in Afghanistan last month. That decision was, again, not one directly authorized by Trump.
The new Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, has conducted a months-long policy review to see what could be done about it. The result? The proposal Trump has in front of him: increase the number of US troops by 3,000 to 5,000, seek matching troops from NATO forces, and increase funding for the Afghan government.
Sending more American troops abroad, of course, does not seem America First-y. But Trump has signaled such a move for a while.
During a call with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani after the election, Trump said he “would consider sending more US troops to Afghanistan.” After the call, an Afghan official stated Trump “would certainly continue to support Afghanistan security forces and will consider a proposal for more troops after an assessment.”
Trump later told the Times of London he did not think things were going well in Afghanistan. “I just looked at Afghanistan and you look at the Taliban — and you take a look at every, every year it’s more, more, more, you know they have the different colors — and you say, you know — what’s going on?”
So it was likely only a matter of time before we got here.
Trump is giving immense power to the military. That’s not a necessarily a good thing.
Apparently Trump is no longer smarter than the generals.
The Washington Post also reports that “the Pentagon would have final say on troop levels and how those forces are employed on the battlefield.” In other words, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, and Nicholson would be in charge of making key tactical and strategic decisions about the Afghanistan War, not Trump.
That’s a big problem. The US military is good at what it does, namely, break things and provide space for a political solution to come about. Officers are specialists in achieving victory in their domain, but they are not responsible for the overall well-being of the country or its resources. In other words, what is good for the war the officer is fighting may not necessarily be in the best overall interest of the country. Who’s responsible for ensuring the United States does what is in its best interest? The president.
But Trump wants his generals making decisions without him. “What I do is I authorize my military,” he said after the “mother of all bombs” was dropped. “We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing.”
This is a reversal from the previous administration. One of the fair criticisms of the Obama administration was that many of its military decisions were based on politics and that the White House’s National Security Council was in the lead too often on defense policy. Trump’s approach, though, is a massive pendulum swing in the other direction.
In his first five months, the Trump administration conducted a targeted bombing in Syria, a special operations raid in Yemen, and airstrikes in Iraq, dropped a massive bomb in Afghanistan, and belatedly sent a massive naval force just off the Korean Peninsula. In all of these situations, each with its own complexities and geopolitical ramifications, Trump doesn’t mind letting the military run things without commander in chief supervision.
For some, this is surely a welcome development. It is certainly a change from the Obama years. But Eliot Cohen, author of Supreme Command and noted Trump critic, said in an interview with PBS that he believes civilians must be in control of war efforts “because of the nature of war itself.”
War is by nature a political endeavor, and “it’s the politicians who really end up having to have the biggest picture,” he continued. So while US military leaders are really, really good at what they do, they don’t always have the “big picture” in mind when making decisions on behalf of the United States.
At the moment, giving the American military “total authorization” is Trump’s preference. He may soon agree to put 3,000 to 5,000 American sons and daughters into harm’s way in Afghanistan with little to no civilian oversight. Based on how the war effort in Afghanistan has gone to date, that’s a dangerous decision.