Exclusive

Inside Trump’s Tortured Search for a Winning Strategy in Afghanistan

Inside Trump’s Tortured Search for a Winning Strategy in Afghanistan

In mid-July, President Donald Trump sat down for a meeting with the head of an American chemical company that transformed his view of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Exploiting the country’s abundant natural resources could result in an incredible economic windfall, Trump was told.

In his conversation with Michael Silver, the CEO of American Elements, a firm specializing in the production of advanced metals and chemicals, Trump learned of the enormous wealth buried beneath Afghan soil: perhaps more than $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources in the form of copper, iron, and rare-earth metals.

Trump’s interest in the mining plan was first sparked by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who met with Trump in Riyadh in May, according to an administration official. “We are sitting on enormous wealth,” Ghani reportedly told Trump. “Why aren’t the American companies in this instead of China?”

Deeply reluctant to continue a 16-year war that has left more than 2,400 Americans dead and cost more than $1 trillion, the news of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth struck a chord with the president. “Trump wants to be repaid,” said a source close to the White House. “He’s trying to see where the business deal is.”

The New York Times first reported in July that Silver met with Trump’s aides, but the mining CEO also pitched his proposal to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth in a personal meeting with the president, sources told Foreign Policy.

A spokesperson for American Elements and two administration officials confirmed the Trump meeting.

The talks at the White House underscored how the president and some of his deputies are anxiously casting about for alternatives in Afghanistan and are ready to entertain unorthodox plans after years of stalemate on the battlefield.

The president’s ambivalence, stemming from a deep skepticism of the war, has sparked frustration at the Defense Department, dismay in Kabul, and internecine fighting within the administration. It also created an opening for outsiders pitching new ideas — including Silver and Erik Prince, the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater (now Academi) — to turn the tide of the war. Prince has recently won some converts in the White House for his proposal to replace U.S. troops with security contractors to take charge of the mission.

With the president and his principals scheduled to meet Friday at Camp David on the issue, Trump now faces a crucial test as a commander in chief over how he will manage the grinding war in Afghanistan — the longest in the country’s history. The meeting takes place in the shadow of the death of a Green Beret on Wednesday, the 11th U.S. combat death in Afghanistan this year. Vice President Mike Pence cut short a visit to Latin America to attend the session, and Defense Secretary James Mattis said at the State Department on Thursday that the meeting will “move this toward a decision.”

Trump goes into the Camp David meeting looking to find a deal in Afghanistan, but he will face the same reality as his predecessors. “There isn’t any way out of making a choice between unappealing options at this point,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at George Washington University. “That’s just the way grown-up, real-life policy works.”

Return of the Prince

Current and former Pentagon officials say Trump in June sought to distance himself from the war effort by granting Mattis the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan up to an additional 3,900 troops. But the retired four-star Marine general dug in his heels, declining to send in more troops until the president signed off on a clear strategy — throwing the ball back into Trump’s court.

Mattis “doesn’t want to deploy troops only to have the president then undercut him the next day with a full withdrawal,” a former government official said.

The Pentagon believed a decision on Afghanistan was imminent back in May and hoped the president would head to a NATO meeting in Brussels with the plan in hand to pitch to allies. The plan, proposed by commanders, calls for sending more U.S. troops to help train Afghan forces to fight the Taliban and taking a tougher diplomatic line with Pakistan for its tolerance of militant sanctuaries on its territory.

The plan amounts to staying the course in hopes of winning better terms in an eventual brokered peace deal with the Taliban. It enjoys broad support among most of the president’s top advisors, including Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, White House chief of staff John Kelly, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

But Trump balked, declining to commit to the military proposal.

In the weeks and months afterward, Trump grew frustrated with the options being presented to him by his national security team, a senior administration official told FP. The president told McMaster “to go back to the drawing board,” the official said. “But he just kept coming back with the same thing.”

For Trump, Afghanistan is the worst kind of business deal, requiring a long-term commitment with no guarantee of success. In the meantime, another alternative appeared.

In May, Erik Prince published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for an “East India Company approach” with a “viceroy” and private contractors. Prince, whose idea captured the eye of Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and other officials, was invited to the White House to outline his ideas. Prince has since presented his case to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in a Washington media blitz, arguing that it’s time for a new model after years of failure and frustration.

Prince’s plan involves deploying 5,500 contractors to work directly with Afghan forces, a proposal he claims would be cheaper and more effective. The U.S. military, he argues, has never really committed to training at the lower levels, in the battalions, which are closely involved in counterinsurgency. “We’re talking about rolling out a bigger program like was done with the Afghan [special operations forces] for the rest of the Afghan forces,” he told FP in an interview.

“If the U.S. Army could suddenly deploy 4,000 sergeants, warrant officers, and staff officers to do that embedded mentoring job, I would shut up. They should do that,” he said. “But they can’t, they haven’t. They haven’t for 16 years. They’ve never fundamentally reorganized how they deploy for the last two wars they’ve been in.”

The attraction of Prince’s option for some is that it allows the United States to quickly scale back U.S. conventional forces and focus on counterterrorism operations.

That plan runs counter to current military thinking, however. “You cannot counter terrorist and insurgent organizations like al Qaeda and the Islamic State and the Haqqani network with just counterterrorist forces and operations,” a former senior U.S. military commander said. “We had to face that reality years ago in Iraq, that you could not kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, and that is what Afghanistan faces.”

Although some in the Trump White House see Prince’s proposal as a fresh approach, turning over war fighting to private security contractors is not a new idea in Washington, and critics say the track record from past experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere is abysmal.

Prince’s claim that his proposal would be cheaper than sending in U.S. forces is up for debate, though he declines to provide a breakdown of his numbers. Prince has suggested that his plan could save $30 billion a year, but budget experts like Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies say a more accurate estimate would be closer to $5 billion.

Despite Prince’s claims of being able to tap into legions of former U.S. special operators willing to do this kind of work, the force would more likely end up drawing ex-soldiers from countries that lack the United States’ rigorous human rights training, says Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former manager at DynCorp International. (Prince says his contractors would be drawn from a variety of U.S. allies in Europe, along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.)

Prince “has no accountability or transparency,” McFate said, “and he’s giving a big hand wave to the hard questions.”

Whatever the costs, the proposal faces steep opposition from most of Trump’s national security team and the military’s top brass. “Nicholson hates it. Mattis hates it. Even McMaster hates it,” said a source close to the White House, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe policy discussions.

Prince concedes that the president’s military advisors are not enthused.

“Gen. McMaster generally does not like this plan,” Prince acknowledged. “I will say Secretary Mattis has said in the meetings, and also I think in the press, that my analysis of the root problems that need to be addressed are spot on and the best he’s seen. I will take that as at least not hating me.”

Decision time at Camp David

Even if Trump’s closest advisors oppose the Prince plan, his sales pitch may have resonated with a president frustrated with the options given to him. As deliberations inside the White House went around in circles over the summer, Trump reportedly vented his fury at a July 19 meeting with his advisors. At one point, Trump suggested firing Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan who has yet to be invited for a face-to-face meeting with the president.

By Aug. 3, in a bid to introduce discipline into a chaotic decision-making process that had dragged on for months, Kelly laid out three basic options shortly after taking over as the new White House chief of staff.

The first option, set out by McMaster in May, involves more troops and an open-ended commitment. It garners the most support in the administration and in Congress, but the president has so far failed to endorse it. The second option is some version of Prince’s security contractor proposal that involves scaling back U.S. troops, and the third is for a complete U.S. withdrawal, though no one in the White House is pushing for it.

Trump has been keenly interested in at least some version of the second option, according to a senior administration official. This “middle option” draws on elements of Prince’s plan and includes working with “regional warlords in tribal areas and to keep a minimal [counterterrorism] strike force, maintain minimal level of troops to mow the grass on terrorist groups, to do minimal [counterterrorism] strike,” the official said.

One twist on this proposal would see an expanded role for the CIA in counterterrorism operations, but CIA Director Mike Pompeo has misgivings about that approach, according to a former government official familiar with the administration’s deliberations.

However, another administration official said a modified version of the first option, which proposes increasing troop levels up to 15,000, is the strategy being presented at Friday’s Camp David meeting. The strategy also would change the U.S. relationship with Pakistan significantly. “The president thinks we’re being ripped off by Pakistan,” the administration official said. “He’s just pissed about this. The DoD view is it is a troubled relationship, but we need logistics.”

The president wants to cut off all military aid to Pakistan. “That’s part of the strategy,” the official said.

The Pentagon has already frozen support to Islamabad under the coalition support fund, which provides payments to Pakistan for supporting counterterrorism operations. In regards to freezing payments, Mattis said he couldn’t certify that Pakistan had taken sufficient actions against the Haqqani network, an insurgent group based in Afghanistan.

Cutting off support for Pakistan would raise yet more problems, however. For years, both diplomats and generals have agreed that the only way to ensure the survival of the Afghan government and bring an end to the war is a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, which enjoys support from Pakistan.

“The issue is the Taliban, and we’re not questioning what our counter-al Qaeda or our counter-ISIS mission is,” said a military official at U.S. Central Command, who asked not to be named. “The real question revolves around the Taliban and what our strategy is there. It’s similar to Yemen, where we have the authorities to fight [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] but we don’t have a policy or strategy for the civil war with the Houthis and Iran’s involvement.… We don’t have anything.”

The administration’s internal debate has so far focused almost entirely on military operations and the training of Afghan forces, instead of a diplomatic strategy designed to lay the groundwork for an eventual peace deal with the Taliban. The Barack Obama administration tried to promote peace talks, but its efforts foundered, partly because the Taliban concluded the United States was ready to withdraw its troops in Afghanistan.

Whichever military proposal wins out, the mining idea remains a top priority for Trump. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is currently conducting an overall assessment of mining opportunities in Afghanistan, while Tillerson, the former head of ExxonMobil, is looking at whether the country would be stable enough for long-term American investments.

Silver, the chemical executive who pitched Trump on the idea, said Afghanistan’s mineral wealth could provide a similar boost to the one China experienced during the 1990s. “When China opened to the world in the early ’90s under Deng [Xiaoping]’s policy of global engagement, the sale of minerals formed the backbone of their GDP growth,” Silver told FP.

The tantalizing idea that Afghanistan’s mineral potential could transform the country and save the fragile Kabul government has proved elusive. Gen. David Petraeus, who was commander of U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan in 2010-2011, touted the country’s mineral wealth as offering “stunning potential.” But Afghanistan lacks the infrastructure of roads, trains, and bridges needed to extract the minerals, not to mention the security required to ensure private companies can operate safely.

Coveted rare-earth minerals in Afghanistan are located in Helmand province in the country’s southwest, most of which is now controlled by Taliban militants. Moreover, commodity prices for iron and copper have sharply declined in recent years, and the Afghan government has been accused of corruption in some of its mining ventures.

Trump may want a deal that brings peace to Afghanistan, paving the way for economic opportunities, but it’s unclear how the White House believes it can persuade Kabul, regional powers, and key players — including Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia — to help broker a peace agreement.

Biddle, the George Washington University professor, who has in the past advised several top military commanders in Afghanistan, said the idea that a war can be won outright on the battlefield or that a conflict ends when a regime is toppled can lead to policy disasters.

“Americans in general fundamentally misunderstand the process for ending wars,” he said. “Almost all wars end in negotiated settlements — some of them are just very imbalanced.”

Kate Brannen contributed reporting to this article. 

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images