Donald Trump's Frustration With Our Afghan Strategy Is Understandable But Does It Matter?

NBC News reports that President Trump isn’t happy with the advice he’s getting on the direction we need to go in Afghanistan. He shouldn’t be.


This is the story:

President Donald Trump has become increasingly frustrated with his advisers tasked with crafting a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and recently suggested firing the war’s top military commander during a tense meeting at the White House, according to senior administration officials.

During the July 19 meeting, Trump repeatedly suggested that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford replace Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, because he is not winning the war, the officials said. Trump has not met Nicholson, and the Pentagon has been considering extending his time in Afghanistan.

Over nearly two hours in the situation room, according to the officials, Trump complained about NATO allies, inquired about the United States getting a piece of Afghan’s mineral wealth and repeatedly said the top U.S. general there should be fired. He also startled the room with a story that seemed to compare their advice to that of a paid consultant who cost a tony New York restaurateur profits by offering bad advice.

There are several different parts to the story.

From the anti-Trump side, the item of interest is Trump’s use of an analogy:

To underscore his view that the veterans who fought in the war may be better positioned to advise him on an Afghanistan strategy, Trump compared the policy review process to the renovation of a famed New York restaurant in the 1980s, officials said.

Trump told his advisers that the restaurant, Manhattan’s elite ’21’ Club, had shut its doors for a year and hired an expensive consultant to craft a plan for a renovation. After a year, Trump said, the consultant’s only suggestion was that the restaurant needed a bigger kitchen.

“We aren’t winning. … We are losing.”

Officials said Trump kept stressing the idea that lousy advice cost the owner a year of lost business and that talking to the restaurant’s waiters instead might have yielded a better result. He also said the tendency is to assume if someone isn’t a three-star general he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and that in his own experience in business talking to low-ranking workers has gotten him better outcomes.

The ’21’ Club, which has been one of Trump’s favorite New York spots, closed for two months in 1987 while it underwent a full renovation and reopened to great fanfare.


The backstory to this comes from a July 18 meeting Trump had with a group of servicemembers with recent Afghan service, mostly highly decorated senior non-commissioned officers:

President Donald Trump met Tuesday with four troops who served in Afghanistan to get their ideas on the next steps in the war even as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis prepares to submit a revised strategy that could involve deploying 3,000 to 5,000 more service members.

Ahead of a White House lunch, Trump said that he and Vice President Mike Pence would be hearing from “four great soldiers who spent a lot of time in Afghanistan” to ask them “what you think, your views. These are people on the ground — know it probably better than anybody.”

“And we’re going to be getting some ideas because we’ve been there — it’s our longest war — we’ve been there for many years. We’ve been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas,” Trump said.

“I’ve heard plenty of ideas from a lot of people, but I want to hear it from the people on the ground,” Trump said in referring to Army First Sgt. Michael Wagner, Army Master Sgt. Zachary Bowman, Army Master Sgt. Henry Adames and Air Force Maj. Eric Birch.


While I wouldn’t defer to a random grouping of veterans on grand strategy, it is always useful to know how things look on the ground from the people at the sharp end of the stick because for any plan to work the people carrying it out have to believe in it. Petraeus’s Surge strategy was built around tactical lessons…many of them developed by McMaster when he commanded at Tal Afar.

The second sort of trivial point is about “minerals.”

[H}e lamented that China is making money off of Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion in rare minerals while American troops are fighting the war, officials said. Trump expressed frustration that his advisers tasked with figuring out how the U.S. can help American businesses get rights to those minerals were moving too slowly, one official said.

China purchased mineral rights in Afghanistan a decade ago, an investment the U.S. supported at the time. Beijing has since had teams mining copper outside of Kabul.

The focus on the minerals was reminiscent of Trump’s comments early into his presidency when he lamented that the U.S. didn’t take Iraq’s oil when the majority of forces departed the country in 2011.

I have to admit, I had no idea the Chicoms were actively engaged in mining operations in Afghanistan, having reached agreements both with the Afghan government and the Taliban. The only way this works is if China is paying protection money. That said, while I think the thought of US soldiers dying in order to create a secure environment for Chinese corporations is obscene, so to is fighting a war for market access and security for American corporations. Back during the primaries, National Review called Trump’s insistence that we should have ‘kept Iraq’s oil’ an “odd fixation.” That was true then and now. I’m guessing this kind of talk appeals to some segments of the country but it would be nice if he’d keep these thoughts to himself.


Trump was not enamored of the contribution of our allies. That’s news, right? I suppose the presence of NATO and other allied troops in Afghanistan is a plus but it is a marginal one. American troops say the abbreviation ISAF, for International Security Assistance Force, stands for I Saw Americans Fight. There are exceptions to this, of course. The special forces of many nations have made major contributions. The participation of some of our allies, though, has been indistinguishable from aiding the enemy. While impolitic, what Trump said is far from inaccurate.

But the real crux of the matter is in Trump’s statement that we are losing. I think it is hard to argue against that proposition. The first US forces set foot in Afghanistan in October 2001. We’ve been there for nearly 16 years and we are no closer to a solution today than we were then. In fact, the hope that we sort of had with the creation of the Afghan government has disappeared. What remains is a corrupt, kleptocratic oligarchy that is only marginally less brutal and offensive than the Taliban. This begs the question as to whether increasing troop levels in Afghanistan serves any useful purpose or is it simply throwing good money after bad?

Unlike Iraq, it has been very difficult to define what a “win” looks like in Afghanistan. There is no infrastructure, no rule of law, no investment, no geographical advantages, no national identity, lots of weapons, lots of batsh** crazy 8th Century tribesmen, lots of grudges and feuds, and opium poppies.


The unfortunate fact is that everyone in that meeting knew this. But no one in the meeting wants to be known as the guy who was there at the table when the decision was made to abandon Afghanistan.

And so, on it will go. Another strategy and another. It is entirely possible that my son, who was born days after US Army Rangers jumped into Afghanistan, will end up serving there.


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