By Nick Wadhams
President Donald Trump has yet to decide the future U.S. role in Afghanistan, even after spending hours in a retreat at Camp David where his defense and foreign policy team made the case to continue fighting a war Trump has long questioned.
“This afternoon the president was briefed extensively by his national security team on a new strategy to protect America’s interests in South Asia,” according to a White House statement Friday. “The president is studying and considering his options and will make an announcement to the American people, to our allies and partners, and to the world at the appropriate time.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster back a proposal to add troops focused on training Afghan special forces. It’s intended to show a U.S. commitment to stay in the country, prod Taliban fighters to the negotiating table and stem the increased presence of terrorist groups including Islamic State, according to people familiar with the plan who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.
The main obstacle to that plan may be Trump: Venting his frustration with the stalemate in Afghanistan — the U.S.’s longest war — the president said at a White House luncheon on July 18, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”
He’s the third U.S. president struggling to stabilize Afghanistan since George W. Bush sent special forces to help oust the Taliban government for harboring Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Trump’s unhappiness over his options for Afghanistan helped fuel interest by some at the White House in a plan floated by Erik Prince, the founder and former chief of the Blackwater security firm, who’s proposed contracting out much of the effort. He pledged it’d save billions of dollars and indicated he’d like to bid on the job. But the people familiar with the deliberations suggested Prince’s idea has lost favor.
In addition to Trump’s top defense and national security advisers, those listed by the White House as attending the lunch and meeting at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland, included Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and budget director Mick Mulvaney.
The plan backed by “my generals,” as Trump has called top military officials, would seek to apply lessons learned from the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, while bolstering the capabilities of Afghanistan’s paramilitary troops. The U.S. would expand its close air support, providing cover for troops that the nascent Afghan air force can’t yet guarantee, and give commanders on the ground more authority over how troops are used.
The move, which would bring U.S. troop levels to about 13,000, would be an extension of an order that Trump gave in June granting Mattis authority to determine troop levels, essentially lifting force limits imposed during the Obama administration. Mattis has said he won’t exercise that authority until there’s an approved strategy.
Faced with Trump’s concern that the Afghanistan war can’t ever be won, those who urge a renewed effort warn the departure of the U.S. and its allies would create opportunities for forces opposed to American interests, including Islamic State, Iran and Russia.
“It’s a difficult situation and there’s no real silver bullet, but what’s clear is the policy of leave now and precipitously withdraw our troops is a real recipe for disaster,” said Andrew Wilder, vice president of Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who advocates a modest troop increase.
“We could reverse the impression that the U.S. is abandoning Afghanistan, which only incentivizes the Taliban to keep fighting and regional neighbors to continue supporting proxies,” he said.
Officials say Trump wasn’t happy with ideas presented to him in June, demanding more options. That put Mattis in an awkward spot: He told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June that he’d have a plan by July. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the committee, has said the administration has “no strategy at all.”
In July of last year the Obama administration announced 8,400 troops would stay in Afghanistan into this year, rather than cutting the force to 5,500 as planned. Barack Obama’s reversal was viewed as an acknowledgment the Taliban had gained ground and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani wasn’t capable of standing on its own.
U.S. engagement in Afghanistan has deteriorated, with personnel hunkered down behind blast walls, the U.S. inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said in a report this month. The Afghan government controls only 60 percent of territory and civilian deaths are hovering near a record, according to the report.
Like other disputes in the Trump administration, the argument over Afghanistan has pitted foreign policy traditionalists including Tillerson, Mattis and McMaster against nationalist opponents of foreign entanglements such as strategist Stephen Bannon, who wasn’t on the guest list for Friday’s meeting at Camp David and whose ouster from his post was announced as the retreat was under way.
The search for alternatives sparked interest in the proposal from Prince, who’s the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Prince, who acknowledged that Mattis opposes his idea, said on “CBS This Morning” that it would use “contracted people, attaching them to the Afghan army for the long term at the battalion level.” He said “the U.S. is not doing any training, or mentoring really, at the battalion level where the rubber really meets the road.”
As the White House indicated, the topic of the Camp David meeting was “South Asia,” not just Afghanistan. That reflects the view of Mattis and Tillerson that any solution for Afghanistan requires getting tough on neighboring Pakistan for sheltering the Taliban and other groups. It’s not possible to “separate the two,” Mattis said this week.
In Afghanistan, there’s an expectation the U.S. will announce a policy that offers continued support to the government, said Mujib Rahman Rahimi, spokesman for chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah.
“From conversations with State officials and also with Congressional delegations, we are expecting a long-term commitment by the U.S. government and the new administration to support Afghanistan and also the fight against terrorism,” Rahimi said by phone Friday. “If you want to deal with terrorism in the region, you have to deal with their sanctuaries and safe havens, and those are mainly in Pakistan.”
— With assistance by Iain Marlow