Assuming you’re an American, your grip on how your country wages its wars loosened a little more last week.
President Trump gave the Pentagon responsibility for determining how many U.S. troops will be deployed to Afghanistan to continue fighting the longest war in the nation’s history. The United States, turning 241 years old next month, has been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly 7 percent of its existence.
Short of going to war (we no longer declare wars), there is no more important decision than how many young American lives to risk. A report from the Pentagon suggests Defense Secretary Jim Mattis may announce as early as this week that nearly 4,000 more troops are Afghanistan-bound to reinforce the 8,500 already there fighting the Taliban. Additional deployments are likely to be announced as early as next month after the Trump Pentagon wraps up its review of the Afghan campaign’s strategy. But any boost surely will leave the U.S. troop presence well below its 100,000 peak in 2010-2011.
Trump’s decision surfaced the same day Mattis told Congress that the U.S. is “not winning” the Afghan war, where the foes now include elements of ISIS. That comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the conflict. But the frank acknowledgement by the defense chief—in a town where perception is often reality—raises the stakes for what comes next: doubling down, or defeat?
The nation has already spent close to $1 trillion and sacrificed more than 2,300 young American lives on this purported anti-terror treadmill.
Troop levels are a political choice, and one that should be made by the commander-in-chief (there’s a reason he’s called that). And there is a wide chasm between President Obama’s micromanagement of the Afghan war and Trump’s abdication. It’s not a binary choice.
As chief of the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, Mattis oversaw the Afghan war as Obama allowed the U.S. troop strength there to surge to 100,000. It’s fair to ask that if Mattis couldn’t turn things around with that many troops back then, why should anyone expect him to be able to do it with fewer now? Especially with the political climate in Afghanistan so foul, and with the U.S. backed government in Kabul in quasi-control of just 60% of the nation.
Just as important, Trump is basically handing off a key decision on waging the war to military men. Mattis wore a Marine uniform for 41 years. Congress had to issue him a waiver to serve as the Pentagon boss because he had been a civilian for only three years, and not the seven required by law. His liaison at the White House is Lieut. General H.R. McMaster, a 33-year Army officer who is Trump’s national security adviser. Both are exemplary officers, eclipsing their colleagues with their deep understanding of history and war-fighting. But that isn’t the issue. The issue is having wars run by the military with relaxed civilian oversight. We elected Trump; we didn’t elect Mattis and McMaster.
Mattis told Congress that Trump had given him “some carte blanche” to send additional troops to Afghanistan. He added, in a statement, that the decision will give the Pentagon “greater agility,” a phrase not generally associated with the Defense Department, even absent Oval Office oversight.
Doug Lute, a retired three-star Army general who oversaw Afghan policy in the Bush and Obama White Houses, called the move “unusual” on the PBS NewsHour. But he said “we should have confidence in the entire Pentagon chain of command,” and therefore not be concerned over the usurpation. Yet a doubling of the U.S. troop presence, he said, could only “help sustain the current security stalemate” absent a negotiated end to the war.
Contrarians will argue that, given how much politicians have screwed up the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the military should play a greater role. Trump has already handed over to the military greater flexibility in carrying out anti-terror strikes, and for setting troop levels in Iraq and Syria.
President Bush invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, less than month after the 9/11 attacks were hatched by al Qaeda there, given sanctuary by the Taliban then running the “country.” The thinking inside the Pentagon back then assumed a rather short war, six months or so, to drive the Taliban from power and allow U.S. troops to come home. How it metastasized in a 16-year nation-building fiasco is rooted in American hubris.
Obama made it worse by continuing the fiction that “victory” was possible, and could be calculated on a calendar, complete with troop caps, deployment deadlines, and a declaration that combat was over. Think of it as Obama’s “mission accomplished” moment.
The dirty little secret about waging war is that the military doesn’t have a secret sauce that will guarantee success. U.S. military officers, standing alone or en masse as the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any other assortment, have about as much chance of running a war successfully as any random bunch of well-informed Americans.
The issue isn’t whether the U.S. military is doing its best. The issue is whether the nation will support spending enough blood and treasure to make a difference that sticks. But that can’t be accomplished just by military force, as every senior U.S. officer will say. Military force can only be used as a lever to compel a peaceful political solution. The political situation on the ground in Afghanistan—and the near-total neglect of the war by Trump, as both a candidate and commander-in-chief—suggests a continuing stalemate, at best.
Trump’s move is simply the latest by the government to separate war from its citizens, as I’ve noted before:
1. Our representatives in Congress prefer not to get their hands bloodied in combat, so they avoid declaring war. They prefer to subcontract it out to the White House, and we let them get away with it. We have now been waging the Afghan war in three different U.S. administrations—including two eight-year tenures—absent a robust national debate on the cost of this war, and how much the nation is willing to pay for it.
2. Through the Pentagon, we have subcontracted combat out to an all-volunteer force. Only about 1% of the nation has fought in its wars since 9/11. We praise their courage even as we thank God we have no real skin in the game.
3. In turn, the uniformed military services have hired half their fighting forces from the ranks of private, for-profit contractors, who handle the critical support missions that used to be done by soldiers. The ruse conveniently lets the White House keep an artificially-low ceiling on the number of troops in harm’s way.
4. We have contracted out paying for much of the wars’ costs to our children, and grandchildren. We are using their money to fight our wars.
All of these serve to separate the nation from its military, and breed a distance between them that lessens their sacrifice, because they are not us.
Trump’s latest shirking gives him an excuse to fault the military when we don’t “win” in Afghanistan, whatever that means. Alas, Trump is no knave when it comes to blame, and he prefers to assign responsibility to someone other than himself whenever possible.
“The latter danger—of the president distancing himself from an unpopular decision—was evident in February after a failed SEAL raid in Yemen that President Trump had approved with scant review,” Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in Commentary after Mattis got the authority to set troops levels in Afghanistan (a move Boot supports). “When a SEAL died on the mission, the president notoriously said it was `the generals’ who `lost’ him.”
Say what you will about Obama’s failed Afghan strategy, one thing was clear: it had his fingerprints all over it.
Trump is like a bank robber trying to remove his fingerprints with acid before attempting the big heist. It may be fitting for a leader who sees himself as a king who prefers to abdicate unpleasant duties. But that’s no reason for the U.S. public—or the Congress or military, for that matter—to let him get away with it.