Generals win key fight over Afghanistan they lost with Obama – Politico
A core group of the nation’s top military commanders spent years confronting the limits of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, watching battlefield gains slip away while American troops pulled out to meet the Obama White House’s deadlines.
Now those officers form the core of President Donald Trump’s national security team, and they’ve achieved a sizable turnaround — by persuading the “America First” commander in chief to send thousands more troops back into Afghanistan, with no set timetable for them to leave.
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The strategy that Trump announced Monday night is a textbook case of how personnel is policy. It’s also a hard-fought policy victory for the current and retired generals who shared the experience of waging the United States’ two bloodiest 21st-century wars — including Defense Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, White House chief of staff John Kelly and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford.
Trump left many of the details on his new plan unfilled, and many military experts warn that an infusion of a few thousand more troops, on top of the 8,400 American troops already there, won’t be enough alone to help Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces regain lost ground. But advocates of the new approach have long warned of the dangers of the Obama-era strategy, which included a 30,000-person surge into Afghanistan in 2010 that was accompanied by a preannounced 2011 deadline for withdrawing them.
“Withdrawal, in my mind, means abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavor we’ve been on for the last decade, and providing Al Qaeda the space within which to plan and conduct operations against the West,” Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2014, when he was trying to slow the reduction in troops.
Dunford later objected when some Obama advisers were pushing for the U.S. to remove all its troops from Afghanistan before the president left office.
Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has witnessed the concrete limitations imposed by withdrawal timetables firsthand. In the fall of 2011, when he was director of operations in Kabul, he had to tell his commanders to hurry up with their last large offensive operations in rugged areas like Kunar and Nuristan — because the U.S. would not have enough troops to mount such missions a year later.
When he returned to Afghanistan last year, Nicholson was surprised to see another practical effect of the drawdown: His one aviation brigade had deployed without many of its mechanics, instead using more expensive, less knowledgeable contractors to stay under the post-withdrawal troop cap.
The generals’ experiences informed the advice they offered Trump during the hard months of debating the new strategy, said one former top commander in the Middle East who is still in close contact with his fellow career officers.
“Telling the enemy when we would start to draw down also was seen by those in uniform as counterproductive if you’re in a contest of wills with an enemy who notes that we might have the watches, but they have the time,” the former commander said.
The refusal to set a date certain for withdrawal is a “core pillar” of the new policy, Trump said in his prime-time announcement Monday.
“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” he said.
Looming large over the deliberations was the last time the United States launched a so-called surge of forces in Afghanistan, when President Barack Obama approved two waves of roughly 30,000 troops each in 2009 and 2010.
The first wave, which followed Obama’s complaints that President George W. Bush had failed to commit enough troops there, had an open-ended timeline. But for the second wave, Obama announced that the U.S. would start withdrawing them in July 2011.
Bush had originally taken the opposite approach in Iraq, resisting fierce political pressure after the 2003 invasion to set a timetable for withdrawal, even as the war grew more violent and popular support waned. Instead, Bush said, the progress of the war itself would dictate when and how fast the U.S. could pull out.
“As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists,” Bush said at the U.S. Naval Academy in late 2005. “These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders — not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington.”
Bush, who also launched an open-ended surge of U.S. forces into Iraq in 2007, ultimately agreed to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 — a deadline that Obama later stuck to. That decision, however, was based on a dramatic improvement in the security situation and an expansion of Iraqi security forces.
The key advisers who pressed Trump to adopt a new strategy had held key roles in carrying out the old one.
Mattis, now a retired Marine general, was head of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2010 into 2013. That coincided with the Obama-era Afghan surge and the beginning of Obama’s announced drawdown.
During his 2010 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis had highlighted the military’s concerns about explicitly spelling out when and how quickly the U.S. would pull out the troops and the importance of basing troop levels on the situation on the ground.
“In this context, I understand the July 2011 date that the president announced at West Point last December as the beginning of a transition of security tasks to the Afghans, based on conditions on the ground at that time, which will allow U.S. troops to begin returning home,” Mattis said in his cautious response.
Six months later, as the July deadline loomed, Mattis told a London think tank that he thought the deadline might embolden the Taliban “to some degree.”
Sitting across from Mattis in this summer’s White House deliberations over Afghanistan was McMaster, the three-star Army general who serves as Trump’s national security adviser. McMaster, one of the key forces in convincing the president that withdrawing from Afghanistan would be far too risky, had headed an anti-corruption task force in Kabul during Obama’s Afghan surge.
Dunford, meanwhile, had been the top commander in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, where he witnessed the transition from the last of the surge combat operations to the current mission of advising the Afghan security forces.
Also involved in the Afghanistan policy review was Kelly, another retired Marine general, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 at the height of Obama’s surge.
Hawks who have criticized the recent U.S. strategy in Afghanistan hailed Trump’s insistence that he will not repeat Obama’s mistake by telegraphing the future. Those include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Fred Kagan, a military strategist at the American Enterprise Institute who has advised U.S. military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that itis “extremely important” to avoid telegraphing when troops might leave.
“The shift from time-based to conditions-based decision-making is key,” he said. “There’s no other way to fight a war with any expectation of success.”
On the other hand, Trump didn’t define what success would look like. And it is not clear what conditions would allow the U.S. to withdraw.
“This is not a plan,” said Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a Marine veteran and Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee. “The president has announced that he is committing to an open-ended war effort in Afghanistan without clearly explaining to the American people or the service members he is sending into harm’s way what he wants and how he intends to accomplish his goals.”
Jason Dempsey, a former Army officer who was an adviser to the Afghans, disagreed with the notion that Obama’s withdrawal deadlines were to blame for the war setbacks.
“The go-to excuse for a lot of advocates of the status quo has been: Afghanistan would’ve turned out great if not for Obama’s timeline,” Dempsey said. “But it is incumbent on those people to explain how they would have gotten the Afghans in the fight in a sustainable way, and they don’t answer that.
“If I was an Afghan listening to Trump say how we’re going to crush the enemy, and oh, we also want the Afghan government to meet certain standards, but without a timeline, I’d just hear, ‘OK, the Americans are here forever,'” he added.
But whether Trump, who during the presidential campaign promised to withdraw from Afghanistan, will be willing to stick with such an open-ended commitment is also considered a very open question.
“Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check,” he said Monday night. “The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political and economic burden. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress and real results. Our patience is not unlimited.”
Max Boot, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who was in Afghanistan earlier this week, said avoiding setting a timeline for the new strategy to work “is important, but I worry that this message of resolution is contradicted by Trump’s reluctance to approve this strategy and his barely suppressed desire to withdraw.”
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