Thank the generals for Trump's Afghanistan reversal
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For Republicans lamenting they don’t know whom to talk to at White House, the answer is the generals.

On Aug. 21, President Trump laid out his Afghanistan policy: “My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts.” Trump went on to describe how he will increase the number of U.S. troops in that country and threatened Pakistan with possible sanctions unless they take a stronger role challenging ISIS.

The policy certainly is a change. In 2013 Trump tweeted: “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!”

What happened to cause this about face? Trump’s generals persuaded him it was in his interest and the U.S. national interest for him to change.

President Trump frequently referred to White House Chief of Staff Gen. (ret.) John F. Kelly as one of “my generals.” He recruited three senior military leaders for his team: Kelly; Jim Mattis at Defense; H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council. And there is chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

McMaster is one of the intellectual architects of the counterinsurgency strategy employed in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a troop-heavy approach that focuses as much on providing security for the population as on killing the enemy.

According to reports, the generals presented the president with four options: Total withdrawal; Use of private contractors; A surge of troops between 4,000-5,000; Or continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a training-and-advising capacity, while working with Pakistan and India to bring about a longer-lasting political-military solution.

The upshot of President Trump’s decision to surge about U.S. forces is that he now owns the war in Afghanistan; it’s neither President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 war, nor President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOvernight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny Russian social media is the modern-day Trojan horse Trump records robo-call for Gillespie: He'll help 'make America great again' MORE’s post-surge of American troops to Afghanistan war.

Trump selected a strategy that had flexibility to allow him to calibrate components according to the situation on the ground. Trump’s approach is situation- and results-based rather than time-based. The generals would only remove American troops if security improves.

This is an important break from Obama’s policy. During 2009, Obama authorized a surge that increased the troop level to 100,000, about three times as many as when he took office; but Obama also proclaimed reinforcements would be withdrawn within 18 months.

Obama adhered to that timetable for Afghanistan, despite the progress underway in the Taliban’s strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. “By telegraphing the troops’ departure so far in advance, the president simply encouraged the Taliban to wait them out,” commented Max Boot shortly after Trump’s speech.

If Trump had chosen the pullout option, there would be chaos as Afghanistan’s neighbors moved in to fill the security vacuum and the Taliban could grant sanctuary to Al Qaeda, and/or the Islamic State.

Moreover, Iran would be able to recruit Afghans to fight on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, contrary to U.S. interests in supporting moderates at war with Assad. So, there is a definite but little-known link between Tehran and Damascus relevant to Afghanistan, the main focus of this post. 

The generals surely advised Trump to avoid the error Obama made in 2011, when he began withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq, allowing the rise of the Islamic State.

Regarding private contractors, “Sixteen years of evidence suggest contractors struggle as much as troops under austere conditions, and there’s no evidence to suggest they do better when it comes to building a road or advising foreign troops or delivering supplies,” reports Slate. Ironically, as of Apr. 2017, there were 26,000 contractors vs. American troops in Afghanistan.

Trump’s address included a downside, however. “By inviting India to be more active in Afghanistan,” writes Mosharraf Zaidi, a foreign policy analyst in Islamabad, “Trump has confirmed the worst fears of Pakistan’s generals: that America is in cahoots with India against Pakistan.”

Trump’s inclination to outsource responsibility to the generals may result in degradation of diplomatic and economic dimensions. Trump has to delegate less to the generals and empower Tillerson’s diplomats more. But State Department budget cuts and lack of personnel make it less of a player in the decisionmaking process.

Another downside of the Trump strategy is it does not take due account of the multiple crises occurring in the wider South West Asia region. Progress in Afghanistan should be more encompassing than if we are winning or losing territory in Afghanistan or influence in Pakistan via India.

Trump’s decision to continue military operations in Afghanistan, with a modest increase in U.S. troops pursuing a counterterrorism mission, is an incremental shift in strategy from the Obama era. Incrementalism may assist holding the line against a resurgent Taliban, but isn’t likely to change the course of the longest war in U.S. history and may be a recipe for endless war without victory.

Although the president’s Afghanistan strategy has downsides, on balance this is the best first step. Boot is right, however, that, unless there is a revision of the strategy, “A war that started sixteen years ago will continue indefinitely with no victory in sight, because from Washington’s perspective there is simply no viable alternative.”

Second, because Trump’s generals persuaded him it was in his and the national interest for Trump to make an about face, and he took ownership of this war, the search for options must continue under his initiative.

Third, Trump should task his National Security Council to conduct 90-day reviews of progress in achieving the objectives for Afghanistan and the region that he set out in his results-based, rather than time-based, strategy.

Just as it took the guidance of his generals for Trump to change his position on intervening in Afghanistan, it will take the wisdom and experience of his generals to see us through.

Dr. Raymond Tanter (@AmericanCHR) served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at University of Michigan.


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