Afghanistan Strategy a Defining Moment for Mattis

Afghanistan Strategy a Defining Moment for Mattis
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The Afghanistan war strategy that President Trump announced Monday night was remarkable in that it was not a string of angry tweets but the product of a meticulous policy review.

“The process was rigorous,” said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The strategy does not dramatically depart from the status quo. It essentially calls for a continued — but not open-ended — U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Notably, the president leaves it to the discretion of the Pentagon to set troop numbers and decide what targets to pursue in the battlefield.

The president, in a prime-time speech at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, in Arlington, Va., credited Mattis for changing his views on the war.

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump directed Mattis to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia. But up until a few weeks ago, it appeared the Afghanistan policy was very much in limbo, stalled by internal White House rivalries that pitted the generals against the isolationists.

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump said. “After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David, with my Cabinet and generals, to complete our strategy.”

Mattis — who as a general in the Marine Corps was nicknamed “warrior monk” for his blunt talk and disciplined approach — was instrumental in assembling the team that put together a strategy that Trump could live with. The coalition included the State and Treasury Departments, the attorney general, the director of homeland security. Even the director of the Office of Management and Budget was involved so he could weigh in on the cost implications.

The White House’s other prominent generals — Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, national security adviser, and Chief of Staff John Kelly — coordinated the policy review “to make certain everyone who had equities was heard eventually,” Mattis said. “I'm very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous.”

The game plan agreed upon at Camp David on Friday was a triumph for Mattis and McMaster, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, a military analyst. The two worked hand-in-hand with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence.

As far as Mattis goes, “I would say his position and stature have been strengthened even further,” said Spoehr.

Trump ultimately agreed to maintain the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan after he was convinced it would not be a repeat of President Barack Obama’s 2009 decision on that front. 

Unlike Obama, George W. Bush and other wartime presidents, Trump said he would not talk about numbers of troops or timetables. He agreed to give Mattis leeway to add forces as needed to help shore up Afghanistan’s security forces so they can retake their country from the Taliban. Part of the strategy is also to pressure the Afghan government to stabilize the country and make it clear that this is no “blank check.”

“Our troops will fight to win,” Trump said. This will be a “conditions and not a time-based approach,” said Trump. However, “this is not an open-ended commitment by the United States.”

Obama, by comparison, announced a military surge of 30,000 troops and also set a strict 18-month timeline for a drawdown. “Everyone said that was the wrong thing to do: To surge and tell people we’re drawing down and leaving,” Spoehr said. “You’re telling adversaries that all they have to do is hang in there for x number of years and we’ll be gone.”

Another tenet of Trump’s strategy is that there is no “nation building” or “democracy building” in the cards. “Those words are stricken from the vocabulary,” said Spoehr.

Trump was insistent that he will not spend U.S. funds to rebuild nations and only wants to “kill terrorists.”

“We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in far away lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image – those days are now over,” Trump said.

Mattis and McMaster also made a strong case that ending the frustrating 16-year war and stabilizing Afghanistan requires engaging local powers, especially Pakistan.

Trump said he will seek a closer partnership with India and take a tougher approach to nuclear-armed Pakistan. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” the president said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan.  It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”

Retired Army Col. Robert M. Cassidy, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said any strategy that doesn’t deal with Pakistan will lead to “more self-delusion and perpetual war.”

Mattis and McMaster “understand the stakes, risks, and costs of failure in Afghanistan,” said Cassidy. He insisted that Pakistan remains the central “impediment to success and stability in Afghanistan.”

Mattis said in a statement that he has directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to “make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy” and he will start discussing details with NATO allies.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said it is remarkable that Mattis was able to get Trump to take ownership of the war. At the beginning, Trump “wanted nothing to do with this and kind of turned it over to the secretary of defense,” Hill said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The secretary of defense agreed to map out a strategy but the president “had to be part of it, and announce it.”

How many more troops are sent to Afghanistan is not necessarily relevant at this point, experts believe. “Increasing 5,000 troops in addition to the 8,000 already there, nobody thinks this is going to make some historical difference, but it might buy some time,” said Hill. “This is a strategy that tells the Afghan government: ‘We are going to give you some more time but we’re not going to give you ‘forever.’”

As much as Trump’s gut told him to get out, he hates losing more than anything, said Hill. “Having helicopters leaving from the roof of the embassy is probably not something he wants to see during his term.”

Nobody expects a major victory, either. But thanks to Mattis, there is a “note of realism” in the strategy, said Hill.

The plan faces further scrutiny on Capitol Hill when Congress returns from the August recess. “Sen. John McCain had already drafted an Afghanistan strategy that he was going to introduce in September,” Sen. Tim Kaine said on MSNBC. “We were frustrated from not hearing from the administration.”

Now that Trump has a plan, “we’ll be kicking the tires when we come back in September,” said Kaine. Democrats likely will criticize the president for emphasizing the military role and cuts to funding for essential diplomacy efforts by the State Department.

In a statement, McCain praised the president’s strategy. “The unfortunate truth is that this strategy is long overdue, and in the interim, the Taliban has made dangerous inroads. Nevertheless, I believe the President is now moving us well beyond the prior administration's failed strategy of merely postponing defeat.”


Sandra Erwin is a national security and defense reporter for RealClearDefense. She can be reached at serwin@realcleardefense.com. Follow Sandra on Twitter @Sandra_I_Erwin.

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