A concept that you learn quickly in the military is that you can delegate authority but not responsibility. The buck stops with the guy or gal in charge, and when it’s policy at the national level, that guy is the commander-in-chief, currently Donald Trump. Yet when it comes to the Afghan war, it appears Trump may be seeking to evade responsibility even as he delegates the specifics of strategy and troop levels to his “civilian” Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis.
That’s the news out of Washington: that Trump has delegated to Mattis the decision as to how many additional U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and what strategy they should employ in a war that Mattis admits the U.S. military is “not winning.”
Think about that. After nearly 16 years and a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. is “not winning” in Afghanistan, which is, to put it honestly, an admission of defeat. “Not winning” means we’re losing, yet how likely is it that the U.S. military, effectively under the command of retired General Mattis, is going to shift gears completely and withdraw?
Mattis testified to Congress that the Taliban “had a good year last year” and that “winning,” which we’re currently not doing, is a scenario in which U.S. forces, working with Afghan forces, are able to provide local security after several years of “frequent skirmishing” with the Taliban and other insurgent forces.
Yes — that’s the definition of “winning.” A long-term U.S. commitment of more troops and more money with continued internecine warfare in Afghanistan.
In the near-term, Mattis will likely send more troops (“trainers” and “advisers”) and more money, promising that this time American training and methods will work, that this time corruption will be curtailed, that this time the Taliban will be neutralized (I doubt Mattis is foolish enough to promise “victory”). Trump will rubber-stamp Mattis’s decision, which gives him the ability to blame his generals if and when the Afghan war takes yet another turn that is contrary to U.S. imperatives. (Recall how Trump blamed his generals for losing the Navy SEAL in the bungled raid on Yemen.)
As a candidate, Trump deplored the waste of America’s wars and suggested he would try to end them. As president, Trump is kowtowing to the Pentagon, ensuring these wars will continue. Worst of all, even as he delegates authority, he is evading responsibility.
It’s a recipe for incessant warfare, yet more suffering, and the continued erosion of democracy in America.
Let’s suppose for a moment that Trump actually wanted to end the Afghan war. It would require considerable political capital to take on the national security state — capital that Trump currently doesn’t have, embroiled as he is in controversy (lawsuits!) and ongoing investigations. This is hardly ever remarked upon in the media: the fact that Trump, who ran on a platform that was often quite critical of conventional wisdom and wasteful wars, has little latitude to act on this platform (assuming he’d want to) when he’s constantly under attack in the media as a Putin stooge, or worse. Some would say he has only himself to blame here, but it goes deeper than that, I think.
Update (6/16/17): Surprise! News out of the Pentagon today suggests that another 4000 or so U.S. troops will be sent as a mini-surge to help train and advise Afghan forces. And so the “stalemate“ in Afghanistan will continue.
As I wrote back in February for TomDispatch.com:
That a few thousand troops could somehow reverse the present situation and ensure progress toward victory is obviously a fantasy of the first order, one that barely papers over the reality of these last years: that Washington has been losing the war in Afghanistan and will continue to do so, no matter how it fiddles with troop levels.
Update 2 (6/16/17): Editorial title at the New York Times: Afghanistan Is Trump’s War Now. It reflects a major flaw and a fatal conceit — that Afghanistan is a war and not a country or a people, that it only matters as a war (at least to Americans), and that somehow Trump now owns it. Recall that before Americans wage war, it’s supposed to require a Congressional declaration. Wars are not supposed to be owned by presidents and waged at their whim.
Update 3 (6/17/17): Watching retired General David Petraeus last night on PBS was a grim experience. He spoke of a generational war in Afghanistan and a U.S. commitment that might come to rival our time in South Korea, i.e. 60+ years. Most revealing of all was the language he used. He spoke of achieving “a sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan. 4000 additional troops are part of that “sustainable, sustained commitment.”
There was the usual talk of regional stability, of maintaining a base against terrorism, and so on. But what the Petraeus interview revealed was the total bankruptcy of American strategy and thinking, encapsulated so well by the concept of a “generational war” modulated by a “sustainable, sustained commitment.”
Update 4 (6/17/17): At Fox News, retired General Jack Keane is calling for an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops to change the momentum in the Afghan war. These troops will somehow change the “absolute disgrace” of the war (he mainly blamed President Obama for refusing to make the necessary commitment to win the war).
These generals never ask the question: Why are our “enemies” doing just fine without U.S. troops and billions of dollars in heavy equipment and air power? Whether in Vietnam or Afghanistan or elsewhere, the answer for these generals is always more: more U.S. troops, more firepower, more aid to our “allies.”
If these generals were investors, they’d keep funneling money to Bernie Madoff even after his fund had been revealed as a Ponzi scheme. After all, the initial returns were promising, and if we keep sending more money, this time, maybe this time, it won’t all be stolen ...
A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, Astore has been a HuffPost featured blogger since 2009. His personal blog is Bracing Views.