U.S. Army Soldiers of 101 Airborne Division 1st Battalion, Bush Masters (TF No Slack), assisted by Afghan National Army troops move into an over watch position during operation Strong Eagle 2, July 19. (public domain image via Flickr Creative Commons https://goo.gl/Q4HDVg)
Tomorrow night President Trump will give a prime time address to the nation on a new strategy for Afghanistan.
The new strategy has been months in the making and we know some previous iterations have been shot down by Trump. This version came together in Camp David (in my view you can thank John Kelly for this because otherwise the meeting would probably have been held at Mar a Lago and the venue would have been the media talking point) and it did not involve Steve Bannon who was busy packing cardboard boxes with his personal effects.
We don’t know what the strategy will entail but a safe bet is that it will include an increase in authorized troop levels in Afghanistan. We also know that the utterly bizarre scheme pushed by some to increase the number of private military contractors (PMCs) in Afghanistan and essentially privatize the war was stuffed into a shipping container and rolled overboard.
I don’t think there is general happiness in the output. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he is satisfied with how the plan was formulated and deferred to Trump in discussing the decision. Being happy with the process does not equate to happiness with the solution or having faith in the outcome. We’ll get a lot more signals beginning tomorrow on what people really think.
But troop strength does not a strategy make. After a 16 year involvement in Afghanistan, I’m still pretty unclear about what our real objective is there. Do we want to maintain a forward position in Central Asia to confront Iran and, to a lesser extent China? Are we just interested in basing rights and operational freedom to harry al Qaeda and ISIS? Or are we trying to make Afghanistan into something it has never, ever been, to wit, a nation with a functioning civil society? Or are we there because the cost to American prestige of a total withdrawal is perceived as too much?
Once you decide the answer to what in the hell we are doing there, the troop strength and mix fall into place pretty easily.
My guess is that we are going to be told that the strategy is to get back to where we were in 2009/2010. That Trump, like Obama, doesn’t want to be in charge when the last helicopter lifts off the roof of the US embassy in Kabul. That is not a strategy. That is a band-aid on a cancerous facial ulcer.