The U.S. military in Afghanistan is pushing a plan for American troops to remain in the country so long that they will be, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from native Afghan troops.
It’s an expansive approach that has run into deep opposition at the White House, and is beyond what President Donald Trump appears prepared to approve.
According to the latest military figures, the U.S.-backed Afghan government controls only 60 percent of Afghan districts, after 16 years of fighting. But if that number can be somehow be brought up to 80 percent, a new study prepared for the U.S. military command in Kabul posits, it could provide a “tipping point” compelling the Taliban to sue for peace.
That formula is based on an internal review of past insurgencies that experts consider dubious. Nor is the military proposing a substantial infusion of U.S. combat forces to secure it—nothing like Barack Obama’s 2010-2012 troop surge, whose gains were minimal and fleeting. But even without a large commitment of troops, cash, or other resources, those familiar with the military’s framework consider it a throwback to the era of counterinsurgency warfare in Afghanistan, something the Trump team has sought to avoid.
In emails reviewed by The Daily Beast, some military officers have been referring to their goal as “Winning in Afghanistan.” That’s something that many experienced Afghanistan hands consider an unrealistic objective.
But the military’s Kabul-based command nevertheless is making plans for the U.S. to stay at war long beyond the nearly 16 years the U.S. has already spent—to the point where American troops are seen to function as an effectively “indigenous” force, not a foreign element. And it considers the tremendous expense of a generational war to be something of a deal, when measured against the cost of terrorist attacks.
“Nobody wants terror to become the new normal—if that takes a modest amount of time and money in the MENA [Mideast and North Africa] and SE Asia, so be it,” a U.S. staff officer in Kabul emailed.
The U.S. has spent at least $700 billion in Afghanistan on warfighting and reconstruction funds over more than a decade and a half.
“There’s an old saw about [foreign forces] having the watches vice [insurgencies] having the time, but that became irrelevant when faced with the global threat perception—and 20 years is a long time,” said the U.S. staff officer, referring to the years that American forces have already been in Afghanistan—plus the additional time they’re about to spend there.
But the military’s perspective on the war has little purchase inside the Trump administration. Its most enthusiastic customer is Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser. But according to U.S. officials participating in or familiar with a policymaking process for Afghanistan that has stretched over six months, McMaster has no significant allies and is trying to sell a policy the president doesn’t want. The Kabul-based command’s broad view of U.S. commitments to the war-torn country helps explain why.
According to multiple administration officials, the only sense in which McMaster is able to differentiate his desired strategy from Obama’s is that any troop increase would not be time-limited. While Trump delegated to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the “force-management authority” to send more forces to Afghanistan, he capped that prospective reinforcement at 3,900 troops, and now that seems in doubt.
No matter what powers he delegated to Mattis, at a Thursday visit to the Pentagon, Trump greeted questions about a troop increase with an equivocal “We’ll see.” Some in the administration had expected Trump to announce a decision on Afghanistan at the Pentagon, but a Wednesday discussion at the National Security Council once again did not end with consensus. Politico reported on Monday that McMaster has alienated his typical allies, including Mattis, by pushing an unpalatable Afghanistan policy.
Ballistic Bannon, Squishy Kushner
Those against an expansive strategy and troop commitment, or skeptical of it, include chief strategist Steve Bannon, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, economic adviser Gary Cohn and even son-in-law Jared Kushner. One senior official characterized their stance against McMaster and the U.S. command in Afghanistan as “nationalists versus globalists.”
But at least one participant in Afghanistan discussions said the nationalist-globalist framework was too simplistic, as the nationalist side was asking the hard questions.
“On Afghanistan, the debate should not be seen purely as nationalist versus globalists, because there are some fundamental questions that need to be asked about the threats to American interests in the region and what are the full range of options to deal with that,” said Laurel Miller, who until last month was the senior-most State Department official overseeing the Afghanistan war.
Additionally, there are important nuances amongst the escalation skeptics.
Bannon, for one, isn’t shy about voicing his staunch opposition to any plan for greater U.S. military involvement in America’s longest war. He has been a critic of American war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, with multiple former Breitbart associates telling The Daily Beast how he would often talk in the Breitbart offices about the wasted lives and treasure the United States spent in both wars with “very little to show for it,” as one Bannon ally recalled.
It’s a position Bannon has carried over to his tenure in Trump’s White House, where he has tried to leverage his casual study of, and obsession with, military history into advising Trump to curtail the level of ground troops. Two White House officials told The Daily Beast that in advising the president and aides against upping troop numbers, Bannon has relayed the lessons of the failed Soviet occupation of the country to draw parallels to the U.S. predicament today.
In contrast, Kushner had “deliberately not taken a hard position” on troop levels and potential escalation, according to one senior White House official. Instead, he focused on evaluating what he deemed politically workable options for his boss and father-in-law Trump. Kushner had been “taking the temperature” of the president’s mood toward the Afghan war—a mood which in recent weeks has shifted closer to heavier skepticism regarding deeper military involvement in a conflict that the president often now views as potentially yielding no tangible win for his presidency.
Another senior Trump administration official with direct knowledge of the internal deliberations bluntly characterized Kushner’s position as a “lean no” on escalation in Afghanistan, but noted that Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law continues to stay “friendly and close” to McMaster.
Trump’s national security adviser, for his part, publicly went to bat for an embattled Kushner over news that broke in late May that the senior adviser had engaged in previously undisclosed communications with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, which reportedly included an attempt to set up a secret communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin.
Another element of the military command’s proposal involves a perennial problem that has resisted nearly a decade of U.S. fixes: the Taliban’s foreign sponsors, principally Pakistan.
“With Afghan air power and commandos buoyed by leader development counter-corruption and unity of command, the ‘insurgency’ will be compelled to reconcile—but only if the international community starts taking external actors seriously,” the Kabul-based U.S. officer wrote to the Afghanistan expert.
“Thus far there have been no punishments, just a lack of incentives for such actors. Therefore, ‘Winning in Afghanistan’ has a military component that is necessary but not sufficient to compel reconciliation. Sanctuary protracts wars, and requires diplomacy to salve.”
Last week, Mattis opted to block Pakistan from getting $50 million in Pentagon funds meant to reimburse allies in their aid to U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.
Army Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, the Afghan war’s American commander, has pressed hard since the waning days of the Obama administration for a larger military presence in Afghanistan. In February, he told Congress outright that he wanted a “few thousand” more troops. Later that month, in an interview with a West Point-based publication, Nicholson indicated he thought he had a successful formula for a war in which the U.S. now emphasizes a role advising Afghan forces instead of the direct combat it still engages in, albeit at lower levels since 2014.
“We think [if] we get to about 80 percent or more” of the Afghanistan population under control of the Afghan government, “we start to reach a tipping point where the insurgency becomes more irrelevant,” Nicholson told the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel newsletter.
“If they’re relegated to less than 10 percent of the population and the government’s at 80, it looks kind of like other countries that have successfully fought insurgencies. That’s not a bad outcome. Then we get to a point where that’s sustainable over time.”
Nicholson went on to say that the U.S. was spending merely a “fraction” in Afghanistan of the $2 to $4 trillion that he totalled as the cost of the U.S. reaction to 9/11. He compared that investment to “term-life insurance,” an analogy he attributed to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying the less the U.S. spends in Afghanistan, the greater risk it incurs.
For his part, Dunford backs the notion of sending a few thousand more soldiers, if only to replace higher-cost contractors who were sent in place of regular U.S. support troops, to meet the Obama-dictated combat troop cap of roughly 8,500, according to multiple U.S. officials with knowledge of the deliberations.But Dunford said Pentagon chief Jim Mattis won’t make that call until Trump signs off on a strategic framework for security throughout the region, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I do believe sending additional forces will make the Afghan troops more competitive,” the chairman told the audience at the Aspen Security Forum.
The U.S. military officer in Kabul indicated in emails that Nicholson’s formula was the result of over three months of staff work, examining efforts from a variety of persistent insurgencies in Latin America, South Asia, and Africa—most of which were confronted by local forces, rather than foreigners like the U.S. military.
Dr. Chris Kolenda, a retired Army colonel with extensive Afghanistan experience, argues that the primary U.S. role in Afghanistan ought to be encouraging a peace process, including a search for a third-party mediator that can preside over U.S., Afghan government, Taliban and regional demands. His own studies of past insurgencies tell a different story than the one Nicholson and his team in Kabul do.
“An insurgency that has sanctuary and tangible internal support tends to be successful every time. It might not always overthrow the government, but in negotiation, it tends to get more of its aims than it gives up,” Kolenda said.
“A host nation government that can’t win the battle of legitimacy in contested areas and can’t take or retain territory tends to be unsuccessful every time. And it seems in Afghanistan we’ve got both problems.”