The president’s delegation of determining troop levels in Afghanistan to the Pentagon is unprecedented and dangerous.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy.
Presidents often say that the hardest thing they have to do, and their most sacred responsibility, is to decide to send troops into harm’s way. Presidential candidate Donald Trump declared two months before the 2016 U.S. election that this is “the most difficult decision you can possibly ever make” and that “there is no greater burden that anybody could have.” Apparently, the decision is so difficult and burdensome that President Trump has now opted to avoid it altogether.
On Tuesday it was widely reported that Trump had given Secretary of Defense James Mattis the power to determine U.S. force levels in Afghanistan. This revelation comes after reports in April that the Defense Department had been similarly authorized to determine force levels in Iraq and Syria. During that time — and to further hide the reality of war from Americans — the Trump administration inexplicably stopped disclosing major conventional troop deployments to Iraq and Syria, a practice generally upheld by the past three presidents. Today, the U.S. military each quarter reveals the number of Pentagon contractors (including those who are U.S. citizens) in Iraq but, absurdly, not the number of actual service members.
This latest transfer of commander-in-chief-like powers from the White House to the Pentagon is unprecedented for such a consequential decision, and it establishes a dismal model for the remainder of the Trump presidency and for future presidents as well. Trump is not simply further delegating authority in line with his boasts of giving military commanders “total authorization.” Rather, the president is dispersing his own responsibility to an extremely popular and colorful retired Marine general. The buck for war and peace no longer stops in the White House Oval Office but in the Pentagon E-Ring.
It cannot be overstated how abnormal this new White House-Pentagon dynamic is. This is not merely a change in the rules of engagement, as in 1986, when Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger altered the rules of engagement for the 5th Fleet to allow it to use force against any Iranian ships laying naval mines in the Persian Gulf. In that case, the updated rules of engagement adhered to broad strategic guidance that had been promulgated by the White House, so President Ronald Reagan’s lower-level input was unneeded.
Nor is this a tactical decision that defense secretaries are routinely empowered to authorize, like the early 2005 special operations “snatch and grab” raid into Pakistan against al Qaeda senior officer Ayman al-Zawahiri that Donald Rumsfeld personally decided to call off at the last moment. Here, it was impractical for President George W. Bush to be intimately involved overseeing such a small and time-sensitive decision.
A change in the strategy and campaign plan for America’s longest war, however, is a far more geopolitically significant situation, which until now has been understood to require a formal presidential decision. Trump’s decision to dodge accountability is especially wrong given Mattis’s own publicly stated discomfort with America’s basic strategy in Afghanistan in ways that are beyond his capacity to alter. On Monday night, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, he declared, “I think we’ve got to do things differently, sir. And it has got to be looked at as across-the-board whole of government, not just military efforts,” adding, “We have got to come up with a more regional strategy.” The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development could theoretically help round out such a strategy, but they are intentionally understaffed at present and not under the Pentagon’s authority in the first place. With Trump washing his hands of the expanded military mission, who will be helping Mattis achieve his strategic vision? What’s clear is that, on his own, he won’t be able to establish new interagency points of contact within the U.S. government or task U.S. diplomats with establishing greater regional cooperation where there has been little for the previous decade and a half.
In that period, nearly 2,350 U.S. troops have been killed while serving in the Afghanistan war; the grim yearly total of civilian casualties (most of whom were killed by the Taliban) has increased from 7,120 (in 2010) to 11,418 (in 2016); and the number of jihadi groups has grown exponentially, all while the Taliban have expanded their control and influence over more territory than at any other point since 9/11.
President Trump alone, and not his secretary of defense whom he calls “general,” should make a public speech that addresses both why all previous military efforts have failed to achieve their intended objectives and why the subsequent courses of action will be any different. If a few more thousand troops — joining the 9,000 already in country (plus some 25,000 military contractors, 9,522 of whom are U.S. citizens) — are going to make a meaningful and enduring difference, Americans deserve to hear how this will plausibly happen.
On Tuesday, Secretary Mattis acknowledged before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Congress could expect to hear in detail about a new Afghanistan strategy by mid-July. He also declared, “We are not winning in Afghanistan, right now, and we will correct this as soon as possible,” a step beyond the February pronouncement of Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, that the war was at a “stalemate.” When Sen. Roger Wicker asked Mattis to define what winning looks like, the Pentagon chief offered a meandering reply: “The Afghan government with international help will be able to handle the violence” and “drive it down” to some acceptable threshold. He also promised “an era of frequent skirmishing, and it’s going to require a change in our approach from the last several years.”
Those are not clear objectives but amorphous aspirations. Like previous senior civilian and military officials, Mattis did not offer metrics that could be measured, evaluated, and falsified — the only basis on which to evaluate policy. Yet he has vowed to somehow do things differently, without offering any indication precisely what that would consist of, besides an indefinite presence of U.S. forces. To quote retired Marine Corps Commandant P.X. Kelly, “The mission of presence — that’s not a military mission. You will never find it in a military dictionary.”
As a presidential candidate, Trump declared: “I will never send our finest into battle unless necessary, and I mean absolutely necessary, and will only do so if we have a plan for victory with a capital V.” Now, as president, he will allow his stand-in commander in chief to likely send a few thousand more of our finest into Afghanistan without a clear strategy or defined objectives. Given that Mattis is such a careful and thoughtful scholar of civil-military relations, it is puzzling why he would endorse and participate in such an extraordinary relationship with President Trump. There has been nothing like this in the 70 years since the defense secretary position was established. The best we can hope for is that James Mattis addresses this honestly in a memoir someday.
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