Opinion | National Security

Only Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Last week Donald Trump roiled Washington, D.C. by insisting on keeping a campaign promise.

How? Trump told his advisors he wants all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the 2020 election.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott miller, reportedly "would consider withdrawing some troops," and I'm sure his commander-in-chief appreciates that. More useful feedback came from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who said, "...it would be very easy for the president to defend leaving a counterterrorism force that was recommended by our military and intelligence community, to protect the homeland after the debacle in Iraq."

What does Lindsey Graham understand that Gen. Miller does not? It's that the American people are OK with a mission in Afghanistan if only someone would explain what it is. "Counterterrorism" people understand. "Conditions-based" whatever-whatever? The officers spouting that don't know what it means either, but they'll know it when they see it!

The politicians understand the American people think we lack a clear objective in Afghanistan so they want out of Afghanistan and our $45-billion-a-year commitment. The military leadership does not and is debasing the currency, its credibility.

In December 2018, Trump said he wanted to redeploy 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. Then-Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the incoming commander for U.S. Central Command, reacted with dismay: "If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe [the Afghan forces] would be able to successfully defend their country. I don't know how long it's going to take."

In most people's minds, "precipitously" and "18 years" (the time we've been in Afghanistan) don't go together.

And no one can speak plainly: In 2017, then-Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, said we are "not winning" in Afghanistan. In 2018, the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said the Taliban "are not losing."

In May, Gen. Dunford said there are still 20 extremist groups in the Afghanistan region (18 more than when we arrived in 2001), but he also said we will stay in Afghanistan until there is no insurgency left. Goalposts, meet moving.

Why is Trump frustrated with his military leaders?

Trump used to build hotels and hotel building requires a schedule and a budget. What the military has in Afghanistan is a near-unlimited budget and a "conditions-based" departure date which any honest person knows means "never" if Gen. Dunford means what he says about defeating the insurgency.

And Trump, being a businessman, understands "sunk cost," and that sometimes you walk away from a failed project. That's a different mindset from that of military leaders who talk of "honoring the sacrifice" of the dead troops by staying in the fight.

And we appear to be more interested in the fight than many Afghans. The recent report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction informs us that almost 42,000 Afghan "ghost troops" were discovered this year, the commanders pocketing the pay.

Afghanistan is all budget and no schedule, all money out; it's like the worst home renovation project ever.

What should we be doing in Afghanistan? The counterterror mission, then gathering intelligence for international counternarcotic efforts, and advising select Afghan units, like the Afghan National Army Commando Corps. That's it.

And no "staying the course." Why? Because the American national security apparatus and commentariat was socialized by the Cold War to regard every intervention as a generational effort, even if a drive-by shooting is sufficient. The highly-credentialled officials never differentiated between the threat from Communism and the threat from Islamist terror groups, not all of whom require America's attention.

And the number of troops needs to be capped by law, no exceptions, unless the Afghan government formally requests the troops, the president approves the mission, and Congress appropriates the funds - after public hearings that include testimony by Afghan officials.

Our military has a unique "can-do" mentality that can work wonders, but as Army Colonel JP Clark observed, "...an organization trained to overcome the seeming impossible will have a natural blind spot for the actual impossible." This has led to vagueness and evasion as the commanders look for a solution while trying to keep morale up, and strain to avoid becoming  the American Boris Gromov.

The tab for this experiment: almost $1 trillion for military operations and reconstruction, probably another $1 trillion for veterans' health care. The human cost: more than 2,300 dead, and more than 20,000 wounded.

Trump can go into the 2020 election saying "I failed to keep us in Afghanistan!" which will be smart electioneering - and the right thing for the country.

And if the Afghans ask what they get out of it, Trump can say, "A country, if you can keep it."

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578). 

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