Commentary Magazine

The Afghan War’s Third President

President Trump is right to be concerned about present trends in Afghanistan, where, despite nearly 16 years of war, the Taliban continue to gain ground. But the way he is going about formulating a new policy engenders little confidence.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that there is growing support in the White House for a complete pullout of U.S. forces. Moreover, there is concomitant interest in an idea pushed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince to replace U.S. troops with contractors. In a previous article, I pointed out that there is no reason to think that contractors would be any more successful—to put it mildly.

Now, NBC News has reported more details of a National Security Council meeting on Afghanistan that, if accurate, should raise a lot of eyebrows.

“During the July 19 meeting,” NBC reported, “Trump repeatedly suggested that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford replace Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, because he is not winning the war, the officials said.” There are now rumors that Trump might fire Nicholson, replace him with National Security Advisor and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and bring in CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace McMaster as NSA.

The president also allegedly compared the situation in Afghanistan to the renovation in 1987 of his favorite restaurant, the 21 Club in Manhattan. He claimed that an outside consultant had recommended revamping the restaurant’s kitchen, “lousy advice [that] cost the owner a year of lost business and that talking to the restaurant’s waiters instead might have yielded a better result. He also said the tendency is to assume if someone isn’t a three-star general he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and that in his own experience in business talking to low-ranking workers has gotten him better outcomes.”

What are we to make of these comments, assuming they are accurate?

First, General “Mick” Nicholson is not the problem in Afghanistan. He knows as much about that country as any general officer, having spent three and a half years there before assuming top command in early 2016, including 16 months as a brigade commander in the dangerous eastern part of the country. Nicholson is universally respected within the military as a smart, highly capable officer. But not even Patton or MacArthur—Trump’s favorite generals—could possibly prevail with the paucity of resources available to Nicholson: He commands fewer than 10,000 troops, and most of those are advisers, not in direct combat. This is a result of the overly hasty troop drawdown dictated by President Obama. If Trump wants to blame someone for the deterioration of conditions in that country, it should be his predecessor, not his commander on the ground.

In fact, Nicholson has been agitating for reinforcements. Trump would be well advised to grant those additional troops, as reportedly recommended by McMaster, rather than firing Nicholson and sending McMaster in his place. McMaster is, to be sure, a highly capable general—one of the very best. He deserves to gain four stars and a senior command after his grueling and thankless White House tour. But Trump is fooling himself if he thinks that McMaster can prevail where Nicholson could not if he is not granted more resources.

Second, Trump is dreaming if he thinks the U.S. could possibly turn a profit in Afghanistan. Yes, studies indicate that there is $1 trillion of mineral wealth in the ground, but it’s not being effectively exploited because of lawless conditions on the ground. The U.S. objective should not be to seize Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, and trying to do so would cost far more than it would generate in the foreseeable future. It would also fan violent resentment among Afghans. The Taliban keeps telling the people that the U.S. troops are there to rob them blind. Trump should not confirm this dangerous misconception.

The U.S. is there to prevent the country from falling once again under the control of violent jihadists, which would not only threaten the U.S. directly (Afghanistan was, after all, the launching point of 9/11) but could also ripple out across the region and the world. A Taliban takeover could destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan next door. The catastrophe that would ensure from a Taliban takeover is far more costly than the efforts the U.S. is making today to prevent such an eventuality by bolstering the democratically elected, pro-Western president, Ashraf Ghani.

A third and final point: Trump clearly doesn’t know anything about Afghanistan or warfare. Instead of trying to make lame analogies to what he does know—Manhattan real estate and restaurants—perhaps he should go to Afghanistan, a country that he has never visited. He claims that it’s better to listen to ordinary soldiers (the “waiters” in his 21 Club analogy) than to generals (the high-priced consultants). In truth, a wise president would listen to both. But Trump hasn’t spoken to either. Indeed, he has never talked to General Nicholson, whom he now cavalierly talks of firing. It is incumbent on Trump to educate himself before he makes decisions that will have parlous consequences for American security.