Word that President Trump is delegating decisions about troop levels in Afghanistan to the Pentagon arrived at almost the same time as news that ISIS fighters had captured the old Al Qaeda stronghold of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. The two events are, in fact, linked, with the latter offering more evidence of why the former has been judged necessary.
As Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, acknowledged to the Senate this week, we “are not winning” in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban and other militant groups, such as the Haqqani Network and ISIS, have recaptured much ground lost during President Obama’s short-lived troop surge, which began in 2010 and saw troops exiting within 18 months of their arrival. The decision to drop a 21,000-pound bomb, known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), in eastern Afghanistan in April did nothing to change the trajectory of a conflict that, from the American perspective, has been heading in the wrong direction.
As I have previously written: “Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of the international military force in Afghanistan, noted in early February that the government is in control of only about two-thirds of the population. As the terrorism analyst Peter Bergen points out, this means that the Taliban either ‘control or contest’ ‘a total of around 10 million people, which is more than the population that ISIS controlled in Syria and Iraq at the height of its power during the summer of 2014.’ ”
General Nicholson has recommended sending several thousand more U.S. troops to buttress the Afghan security forces, and it has been reported that the Department of Defense is advocating the dispatch of 3,000 to 5,000 personnel in addition to the 8,400 or so who are presently in Afghanistan.
There have been reports of opposition within the White House from Steve Bannon and other aides who do not believe that the U.S. should be expanding its commitment to the kind of “nation-building” operation that Donald Trump railed against during the campaign. If Trump has now delegated the troop decision to the Pentagon, as reported, this would suggest that Bannon has suffered a policy defeat at the hands of H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis, two generals who have served in Afghanistan and are committed to keeping the Taliban and other extremist groups from seizing power.
This is good news—as is the fact that the Trump White House is refusing to engage in the kind of micromanagement of military operations that was characteristic of the Obama White House. All of President Obama’s secretaries of defense complained about the tendency of relatively junior White House staffers to get deep into the weeds in making military decisions, and about Obama’s tendency to reserve for himself even relatively inconsequential decisions. One consequence of this approach was a rigid troop cap of 100,000 personnel during the surge that forced military commanders to break up units, keeping troops at home instead of sending them to do their assigned jobs, while relying heavily on civilian contractors.
Trump is right to grant military commanders more autonomy, but is he going too far in the present instance by delegating the basic decision about U.S. troop levels? Michael Gordon of the New York Times has a good summary of the debate: “Proponents say that delegating the authority to the Pentagon will enable it to carry out campaigns against the United States’ adversaries without interruptions and will allow it to respond more quickly to changes on the battlefield. The risk, critics say, is the president may become too detached from developments on the battlefield and may use this approach to distance himself from a decision that could be politically unpopular.”
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. When a SEAL died on the mission, the president notoriously said it was “the generals” who “lost” him. We can only hope that when things go wrong in Afghanistan—and they will, as the recent murder of three U.S. soldiers at the hands of an Afghan soldier reminds us—Trump will not again attempt to blame “the generals” but, rather, accept his full responsibility as commander-in-chief even for decisions he has delegated down the chain of command.
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