President Trump is looking to expand, or at least solidify, military operations in two key regions. Unfortunately, it’s far from clear what policy we are pursuing and whether there is even an overarching policy behind the military moves.
The Associated Press reported recently that a deployment of 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan is in the works in an effort “to break a stalemate in a war that has now passed to a third U.S. commander in chief. The deployment will be the largest of American manpower under Donald Trump’s young presidency.” The report explained:
The decision by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis could be announced as early as next week, the official said. It follows Trump’s move to give Mattis the authority to set troop levels and seeks to address assertions by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan that he doesn’t have enough forces to help Afghanistan’s army against a resurgent Taliban insurgency. The rising threat posed by Islamic State extremists, evidenced in a rash of deadly attacks in the capital city of Kabul, has only fueled calls for a stronger U.S. presence, as have several recent American combat deaths.
One can applaud the White House decision to avoid micromanaging the Pentagon, but in this instance the president has yet to make a case to the American people about the progress of the war, our end goals or how this additional deployment will meet those goals. Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution explains, “Pre-delegation to the military is not a strategy. Vague demands to ‘win’ is not a strategy. What we are seeing is an abdication of responsibility by the Commander in Chief.”
There is widespread agreement within the military and among outside experts that we are, if anything, losing ground in Afghanistan. Additional troops may, in fact, be the right strategy, but the president shows no sign he has recognized, let alone is willing to communicate to the country, that a decisive victory is likely out of reach. Michael O’Hanlon notes that a strategic review is underway. He concedes that whatever that produces “probably won’t be enough to produce a huge turnaround; we are seeking varying shades of grey in preserving a mediocre outcome, rather than realistically expecting a clear victory. But even imperfect outcomes can be superior to seeing the place fall back into extremist control.” Nevertheless, there has been virtually zero public discussion of this unfortunate state of events. Congress and the American people have not been prepared after 16 years of war to hear that “we really cannot win this thing.”
Meanwhile, our Syria policy is arguably more muddled than it was under President Barack Obama. The Post reports, “Russia on Monday angrily condemned the downing of a Syrian aircraft by a U.S. fighter as a ‘flagrant violation of international law,’ and said its forces will treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft and drones as targets if they are operating in Syrian airspace west of the Euphrates while Russian aviation is on combat missions.” This comes at a time when there is no consensus in the administration concerning our approach to Syria:
A pair of top White House officials is pushing to broaden the war in Syria, viewing it as an opportunity to confront Iran and its proxy forces on the ground there, according to two sources familiar with the debate inside the Donald Trump administration.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East advisor, want the United States to start going on the offensive in southern Syria, where, in recent weeks, the U.S. military has taken a handful of defensive actions against Iranian-backed forces fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Their plans are making even traditional Iran hawks nervous, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has personally shot down their proposals more than once, the two sources said.
Cohen-Watnick, you may recall, is the NSC official involved in the scheme with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to throw the investigation into Russian collusion off-stride by raising the bogus issue of unmasking.
For now, Mattis is swatting down suggestions to expand military action in southern Syria. (“Despite the more aggressive stance pushed by some White House officials, Mattis, military commanders and top U.S. diplomats all oppose opening up a broader front against Iran and its proxies in southeastern Syria, viewing it as a risky move that could draw the United States into a dangerous confrontation with Iran, defense officials said.”)
The problem in Syria, as it is in Afghanistan, is a lack of clarity about our intentions and objectives. “These are extremely difficult problems. No one expects the President to find a way forward overnight,” Wright says. “But he needs to demonstrate that he is aware of the various strategic options, with all of the trade-offs and costs involved in each. He then must decide which path to choose and lay out that thinking in a speech to the American people.” He is not optimistic this will happen anytime soon. “Instead we will see continued drift until a disaster or crisis brings matters to a head and forces big decisions,” he predicts.
In both Afghanistan and Syria, we see a top-tier military leader, Mattis, making reasoned decisions. However, military moves need to be made within an overall foreign policy strategy that sets forth goals and the means to meet them. We have no overall foreign policy strategy because we have a president totally incapable of performing his duties, a White House lurching from one disaster to the next and a State Department that lacks influence and hasn’t even bothered to staff below the deputy secretary level. This is no way to run a superpower.