Facing demands to fire Donald Rumsfeld, his secretary of defense, in early 2006 President George W. Bush told the press, “I hear the voices and I read the front page and I hear the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.” He decided that Rumsfeld would stay at that point.
Last Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that we weren’t winning in Afghanistan. That was old news. Back in February, Gen. John Nicholson, our commander in Afghanistan, told Congress that we were stalemated there and that he needed more “offensive capability” to break the stalemate.
Two days after his Tuesday testimony, Mattis said that the president had delegated to him the authority to decide how many troops would be deployed to Afghanistan. Mattis also said that he planned to have a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan to present to the president by mid-July for his approval.
Because Mattis didn’t say the president had set a policy goal or otherwise given him guidance on what the strategy is supposed to achieve we have to conclude that the president didn’t.
Mattis, not President Trump, is the now “the decider.” That’s a very big problem for a lot of reasons.
On Thursday, previewing Mattis’s new strategy, the Pentagon announced that Mattis had authorized deployment of nearly five thousand more troops to Afghanistan to “break the stalemate.” Most of those troops are supposed to be used to train Afghan forces, which we’ve been doing for almost sixteen years without success. It also conflicts with Nicholson’s statement that he needs more offensive combat power, which can only be provided by U.S. and NATO troops.
The mini-surge must be a finger in the dike to prevent everything from falling apart in Afghanistan until the new strategy Mattis has been crafting for months is approved by the president, briefed to Congress, and begun to be implemented.
The new strategy, according to the usual leaks, aims not only at Afghanistan but also at Pakistan. Pakistan has, since 9/11, played both sides, a fact that is ignored too often. Pakistan hid Osama bin Laden for years in Abbotabad, a city dominated by the Pakistani military. Pakistan’s military is harboring and supporting the Taliban just as it hid bin Laden.
It’s entirely backwards to send more troops anywhere — especially to Afghanistan — before we have a strategy to win a conflict or decide to withdraw from it without victory.
We now have about 8,500 troops in Afghanistan (joined by another 5,500 troops from NATO nations) and what they are doing is at this point altogether unclear. If America adds nearly five thousand more we have to ask, yet again: to do what, and for how long?
That’s a question that only the president should answer, but he evidently won’t.
The president, not the defense secretary, is commander in chief. It’s his responsibility to make strategic decisions, and that responsibility is not delegable, as every former president has recognized. Lincoln freed the slaves, not one of his generals. He waited to do so in order to time that action to accompany a Union victory. Truman, not MacArthur, decided to drop the atomic bombs on Japan. Truman, not his secretary of defense, fired MacArthur over his resistance to civilian control during the Korean War. Ronald Reagan sent F-111’s to bomb Qaddafi’s camp. George W. Bush, not Donald Rumsfeld, decided to attack Afghanistan after 9/11.
Former president Obama understood the Afghanistan war to be little more than a political liability. He micromanaged it when he did anything at all. In the announcement of his troop surge Obama included a date certain on which the troops would be withdrawn. Obama only wanted to kick the can down the road to make sure he wasn’t blamed for losing the war.
President Trump has detached himself from conducting the wars we’re fighting. But as president one of the most important parts of his job is to run those wars. It’s up to him to decide the goals we pursue and the strategies to get us there. He apparently declines to accept that responsibility.
One of my closest friends, an experienced politician and veteran of Army intelligence, objects to Trump having generals in his cabinet and among his closest advisors. But Trump has absolutely zero education or experience in national security and foreign affairs. For him, the presidency is a matter of on-the-job training. Having generals — all retired except for National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. McMaster — in high positions close to him enables the president to get advice on matters of which he lacks knowledge.
But that doesn’t relieve the president of his responsibility to make decisions. Delegating matters of strategy and policy to the generals is an abdication of Trump’s constitutional responsibilities.
Never during his campaign or since has Trump said how he would approach America’s longest war. Though we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for almost sixteen years, Trump has no strategy or policy or goal for Afghanistan.
It’s wise for Trump to get military advice from people such as Mattis. But military advice, like any other kind, has its limitations. Trump is evidently content to rely on that advice unqualifiedly. Perhaps he recognizes his own limitations — being entirely unqualified to make such judgments himself — but that would be uncharacteristic of him. His uncharacteristic deference compels the conclusion that he has chosen to be detached from the key decisions for which a president is responsible.
Military thinking and planning is informed by its recent history. It sometimes ignores the facts on the ground. Mattis’s new strategy, from what we know so far, is more of the same nation-building that has failed resoundingly in Afghanistan and Iraq for reasons that are plain to see. Principal among them is that the Taliban have never been defeated.
You cannot build a nation until the enemy and its ideology is defeated. That is one of the principal lessons of World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Though the Taliban has suffered huge setbacks, their ardor for fighting is undiminished since 2001. We see that all too often. About a week ago, an Afghan “commando” murdered three U.S. Army Rangers before he was killed by other U.S. soldiers. On Saturday, another Afghan soldier fired on U.S. Army troops, wounding seven before he was killed. These murderers weren’t just traitors to the consistently weak Afghan government: they were Taliban soldiers — or jihadis sympathetic to the Taliban — undetected by the Afghan government or our forces.
Those Afghanis were propelled by the same Islamic ideology that propels the Taliban, the Islamic terrorist networks, and the nations such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia that sponsor them.
That ideology, as long as it is undefeated, will remain an immovable obstacle to any success in nation-building in Afghanistan and everywhere else that ideology has taken hold. Which brings us back to the point that the president, detached as he is, won’t tell the generals to stop doing what has failed since 9/11 and find another strategy or just get out of Afghanistan.
Trump’s lack of leadership will be fatal to our efforts in Afghanistan just as those efforts failed under Bush and Obama.
Trump’s failure to lead is hurting our military’s ability to defend us in many other ways. Last week the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, told Congress that its failure to fund the military on an adequate and stable basis was soon to be fatal to our ability to project power. Dunford said, “…without sustained, sufficient and predictable funding, I assess that within five years we will lose our ability to project power; the basis of how we defend the homeland, advance U.S. interests and meet our alliance commitments.”
Dunford was testifying on the need to fund the Pentagon’s 2018 budget. That budget — despite Trump’s promises for a massive military buildup — will mean funding one Navy destroyer and zero new aircraft beyond what was provided in former president Obama’s plan for Pentagon spending. Trump’s budget request was dead on arrival in Congress and will probably be cut.
As I’ve written before, the $20 billion increase in defense spending Trump achieved earlier this year is chump change. It won’t even raise readiness levels above their current parlous state.
The president is as silent on the military funding matter as he is on matters of military strategy, goals, and planning. He either doesn’t understand or doesn’t’ care that he needs to be fully engaged with Congress and the military on those matters.
This is not just a problem of Trump fulfilling his campaign promises. It’s vastly more important than that. A president who isn’t fully engaged in setting policy, developing strategy and budgets cannot succeed in undoing the damage done by his predecessors. If Trump’s generals want to provide him the best advice they possibly can, it would be that precise point above all else.