- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
In the coming weeks, President Donald Trump will become the third American president in 16 years to surge troops into Afghanistan. But he will also be the first to hand off to his defense secretary key decisions on the number of troops to deploy, and the strategic aims they’ll be sent there to achieve.
Those details are coming, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis promised lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week, acknowledging that the military strategy his team put together has yet to reach the president’s desk, and won’t get there for several weeks.
The strategy, according to military officials, will likely involve giving commanders on the ground more authority to deploy troops as they see fit, allowing them to embed with Afghan army units in the field to assist in calling in air support, and offer tactical advice.
Earlier this year, Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, testified on Capitol Hill that he had enough troops to conduct the counterterrorism mission aimed at Taliban and Islamic State fighters and their leadership. What he needed, he said, were thousands more trainers to work with Afghan soldiers.
That training mission will likely resemble in some ways what U.S. forces are doing in Iraq and Syria. There, American advisors are working with Syrian rebel commanders and Iraqi army officers to formulate battle plans and direct the fight around Mosul and Raqqa.
The proximity to the front lines allows the Americans to call in strikes from bombers, jets, and artillery, all of which the Afghan army is sorely lacking. That is already happening to some degree. Over the past four months, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan have been at their highest sustained rate since the summer of 2014, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Air Force.
The focus of the American effort in Afghanistan “should be on troop capabilities, not on troop numbers, providing the intelligence and air support that the Afghan army needs,” said David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
Sedney, who recently returned to the United States from Kabul, where he was acting president of the American University of Afghanistan, added that while the Afghans are perfectly capable of fighting, “they don’t have the leadership and coordination” needed to hold ground and perform complex operations.
An increased American effort — without a publicly announced timeline for withdrawal — “will force the Taliban to rethink their strategic assumptions, and the Taliban will have to make a different set of calculations,” about when and how to fight, and under what conditions they would participate in peace negotiations.
With so much of the country either in Taliban hands or under threat of being overrun, and with Afghan forces suffering heavy losses on the battlefield, the war is far from reaching a turning point in favor of the embattled government in Kabul
“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now,” Mattis said this week. Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, replied with indignation that the Pentagon chief could not articulate a new strategy for the war. “It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy,” McCain said on Tuesday. “We know what the strategy was for the last eight years — don’t lose. That hasn’t worked.”
Just a day after the exchange, McCain and fellow republican Senator Lindsey Graham were invited to the White House Situation Room to be briefed by Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. Graham appeared on Fox News Radio Thursday to throw his support behind what he heard. “I am all in,” he said.
Graham and McCain have long advocated for more U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, and have pushed both the Obama and Trump administrations to allow commanders on the ground more flexibility in how to employ troops in the field.
Military officials declined to comment on the contents of the strategy.
Any expansion of the war effort won’t come cheap. As it stands, Washington plans to spend $45 billion next year to keep the already planned 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and to equip and train Afghan forces. That number will no doubt rise. Just under $5 billion will go directly to the Afghan armed forces. Despite the rhetoric coming from the Trump administration about pressuring allies to do more, international contributions will only total $789 million.
In March 2013, Matthis incurred the wrath of the White House when, as leader of the U.S. Central Command, he told a Senate panel he supported keeping 13,600 U.S. troops in country indefinitely. His testimony directly challenged president Obama’s plan to have fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops there by 2014, gradually falling to an embassy guard presence.
Mattis retired early several months later.
Ironically, by surging several thousand troops to Afghanistan in the coming weeks, Mattis may finally bring the U.S. force presence there up to the number he sought four years ago.
Photo Credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images