Trump Blindness to Afghanistan’s Complexities Delays War Plan

afghanistan strategy

The White House initially intended to unveil its grand strategy for Afghanistan in mid-July after President Donald J. Trump allegedly gave U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “carte blanche” in terms of resource requirements. However, as the deadline came and went, Mr. Trump turned on the military, reportedly under the influence of his Cabinet’s isolationist wing.

The president refused to sign off on the Pentagon’s 4,000-troop surge proposal, threatened to fire the top commander, and suggested pulling all forces out of Afghanistan because the U.S. was “not winning.”

On Thursday, Mr. Trump told reporters that his administration was “very close” to announcing a new strategy for Afghanistan, which took many by surprise considering the range of radical proposals that had leaked, including the deployment of a private army overseen by a viceroy.

Not to mention, Mr. Trump aides over the weekend, including National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, pushed the notion that there would not be any announcement on Afghanistan because the U.S. was done telegraphing moves to the enemy.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb took exception to this approach for a number of reasons including the brute fact that the troop plan is impossible to hide and the reality that it is critical for sending important signals to all parties to the conflict.

“By announcing it you are trying to send a signal to the Taliban because eventually everyone agrees you have to negotiate with them. I know General McMaster has said that the Taliban will never negotiate until we can stabilize the situation militarily,” Mr. Korb told The Globe Post. “Even if you don’t announce it – everyone is going to know about it anyway.”

Mr. Trump’s fixation on “winning the war” is problematic, Mr. Korb explained, especially considering only a political solution can end the conflict. It is not just a question of military victories, he added, other political factors must be considered such as the confidence the Afghan people have in their own government, a nuance likely lost on the president.

“I do not think he realized how complicated the situation was,” Mr. Korb claimed. “If this was simple, it would have been solved a long time ago.”

The ex-defense official’s concerns are corroborated by a report in The Washington Post last week which describes how the president’s short attention span frustrated advisers. The report, citing unnamed White House officials, said Mr. Trump “had little time for in-depth briefings on Afghanistan’s history, its complicated politics or its seemingly endless civil war.”

Mr. Korb believes that part of the reason Mr. Trump has suddenly been reluctant to approve the Pentagon’s plan is because people like White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon have convinced him that the U.S. has been stuck in Afghanistan for too long.

The former senior Pentagon official also said that allegations Mr. Trump wanted to fire General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has further complicated the situation by sending the wrong signals to ISIS and the Taliban in addition to the Afghan government, which is co-led by President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah.

“We don’t have an ambassador there and Nicholson is kind of doing both jobs and from everything I understand Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah like him,” Mr. Korb argued.

Overall, Mr. Korb added, that while it is critical to have the debate, delaying and failing to meet the deadline for announcing the strategy has not been helpful.

The delay in the plan has caused a stir in Congress as well, evidenced by Senator John McCain who has grown so frustrated with the White House that he announced his own strategy on Thursday.

“Nearly seven months into President Trump’s administration, we’ve had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened,” Mr. McCain said in a statement. “The thousands of Americans putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan deserve better from their commander-in-chief.”

Former Under Secretary of Defense and Chief Financial Officer for the Pentagon, Dov Zakheim, told The Globe Post that while the president taking the time to adequately study the options is the right approach, ultimately Mr. Trump should heed the advice of his generals.

“Mr. Trump is right to give Afghanistan policy careful consideration, given the length of the war, though I hope he will follow the advice of Secretary Mattis and the military leadership,” Mr. Zakheim said.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Steven Bucci, however, had a different take on the supposed clashes between Trump and Pentagon senior leaders and the president’s threat to fire the top commander in Afghanistan.

“All military officers serve at the pleasure of the President, every president,” Mr. Bucci told The Globe Post. “They can always disagree, and give whatever advice they feel is best. If the president chooses, he can fire them. Just as Truman fired MacArthur, or Obama fired McChrystal.”

If any of the military brass, he added, do anything other than “salute and obey, or resign” they should be arrested.

“There is nothing odd, or out of sync if this happens. It is the way our system works,” Mr. Bucci concluded.