Trump struggles to find new strategy for Afghanistan
Pressure is growing on President Trump to settle on a strategy for the war in Afghanistan.
Administration officials have been embroiled in a heated debate for months about what the strategy for the war should be, with Trump reportedly frustrated to the point that he raised the idea of firing the general in charge of U.S. forces there.
The dramatic suggestion underscores the sense that Trump is looking for a way to resolve the nation’s longest war, but it has only heightened the frustration of those in Washington who want the president to make a decision.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, threatened to take matters into his own hands if Trump doesn’t chart a course for the war by next month.
“If the president fails to do this by the time the Senate takes up the defense authorization bill in September, I will offer an amendment to that legislation, which will provide such a strategy,” he said in a statement.
McCain accused Trump of making the same mistakes as his predecessor, Barack Obama, in failing to provide a “successful policy and strategic guidance from Washington.”
“Our commanders in chief, not our commanders in the field, are responsible for this failure,” he said.
Trump has been disheartened by what he sees as an intractable conflict and appears to be unimpressed by the options presented to him by the military brass.
“I think that he is obviously very frustrated by the advice he is getting and the nature of the war,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman, a former congressional aide and Pentagon adviser, said that Trump might be unfamiliar “with the military issues involved,” which could make it difficult to make sense of the “conflicting advice he seems to be getting.”
Trump publicly stated his qualms during a luncheon last month with military service members who did tours in Afghanistan, saying, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”
“I’ve heard plenty of ideas from a lot of people, but I want to hear it from the people on the ground,” he said.
The central choice for Trump is whether to escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan in an effort to prevent it from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups or set in motion a plan to withdraw American forces and leave the fight to the Afghan military.
The Pentagon wants to send around 4,000 additional U.S. troops to the war-torn country to help train and advise Afghan forces and help lead counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda, the Taliban and nascent elements of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There are roughly 8,400 American troops currently serving there.
But that plan has been put on hold due to the lack of a decision on broader strategy questions. The Pentagon plan is not a major departure from the strategy endorsed by Obama, who wanted a limited role for American ground forces.
The delay, however, has caused ripple effects for U.S. allies.
Observers expected Trump to make a decision ahead of his first NATO meeting in May so that he could have something concrete to show allies as he corralled them to commit more of their own forces to Afghanistan.
When that didn’t happen, Defense Secretary James Mattis promised Congress he would deliver a new strategy by mid-July. But that self-imposed deadline came and went with no announcement.
Trump’s frustration centers on what he sees as his advisers’ inability to present him with a “winning” strategy. His anger boiled over during a meeting in the Situation Room on July 19, when Trump complained the United States is losing the war, according to NBC News.
During the meeting, he suggested firing Gen. John Nicholson, who has been commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan since March 2016, NBC reported. Trump floated the possibility of installing national security adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, in his place.
Administration officials have pushed back on the report, with Trump aide Sebastian Gorka telling Fox News that Trump is confident in Nicholson’s leadership.
“Absolutely, absolutely, yes,” Gorka said Thursday. “It is not a question of confidence, it is a question of inheriting bad ideas, false assumptions and reassessing what’s good for America.”
Trump’s reported comments on Nicholson elicited fierce pushback on Capitol Hill, with McCain and his close ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), giving the general a vote of confidence.
“I can’t think of a good reason to fire the general. I think he’s doing an admirable job,” Graham told reporters Wednesday night.
“If the president doesn’t listen to the generals like Gen. Nicholson and he goes down the road that President Obama went, Afghanistan’s going to collapse,” he added.
Asked if she supports Nicholson, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said, “I do.”
“The reason this is hard is because there’s no good option, and the president, I hope, understands that,” she said. “He has been willing to trust his military leadership in so many instances; he should not waver from that. He should trust his military leadership that’s on the ground.”
James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation and member of the Trump transition team, said if the administration continues delaying a decision on an Afghanistan strategy, Americans might feel those who are dying are doing so for no reason.
But he said the administration should take time to ask tough questions about strategy, blaming the Obama administration for the state of the conflict.
“The reason we’ve made no progress in last eight, 10 years is not because Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, it’s not because it’s an intractable, insolvable problem, it’s because we’ve been treading water for eight years,” he said. “That’s the real problem.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations panel, said he thinks Trump is just frustrated the proposals for Afghanistan have contained few new ideas.
“I think what’s happening is that there’s been a proposal made that is more the standard, typical proposal relative to Afghanistan, and I think the president’s frustrated,” he said. “I think he’d like to see a change in trajectory, and he hasn’t seen anything yet that’s that different from what we’ve done in the past.”
Corker added that the final strategy should be “sustainable.”
“At the end of the day, whatever they end up with, though, it’s got to be something that is sustainable, and that people got to know we’re there until things are in the appropriate place,” he said. “Without that, people in the region are going to continually hedge their bets and undermine what we’re doing.”
Cordesman said that whatever strategy is chosen is unlikely to change the trajectory of the conflict in the short term, since the fighting season is already well underway. But he stressed that the administration must make a decision “as soon as you can” to maintain an opportunity to gain the upper hand.
“The cost is you may be effectively losing the war by not taking a decision,” he said.
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