Team Trump Worried He’ll Change His Mind Again on Afghanistan War Plan

U.S. commanders and officials think they’ve sold Trump on keeping American troops in Afghanistan. But they don’t want to jinx it.

U.S. commanders and officials think they’ve sold Trump on keeping American troops in Afghanistan. But they don’t want to jinx it.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

President Donald Trump is expected to endorse an Afghan strategy that keeps U.S. troops on the ground, but overturns what the military sees as two Obama-era mistakes: announcing a deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal; and later, forcing the Pentagon to send costly contractors instead of U.S. troops to stay under the Obama-imposed troop cap, current and former U.S. officials say.

Yet no U.S. official wants to jinx the strategy announcement by leaking what Trump approved at Camp David last Friday, lest the president change his mind in a fit of pique over someone stealing his thunder, one U.S. official joked.

Trump is scheduled to address the nation on the subject at 9 p.m. eastern on Monday night.

“They won’t give anyone an advance preview,” said one frustrated senior defense official. This official and others spoke anonymously in order to describe the sensitive strategy, which has been closely held by White House officials and cabinet members.

Trump’s military advisors have been wrestling with how to sell staying in Afghanistan to a commander in chief who promised his base he’d leave, but also promised to listen to his generals. They want to give him a winning strategy that keeps Afghanistan from becoming an ISIS-breeding terrorist safe haven, but looks different than the Obama surge and produces a different result than an endless quagmire that has already killed more than 2,400 U.S. troops, and cost well over $1.6 trillion.

Participants in the Trump administration’s internal debates on Afghanistan tell the Daily Beast—though not for attribution—that what passed for considerations about a “regional” approach were inadequate. Discussion of Pakistan centered around whether to take a harsh approach; the question remained unsettled for months. Nor were Russia and Iran’s involvement in propping up the Taliban considered with much substance.

Indecision was also a characteristic of the internal debate. National Security Adviser LT. Gen. H.R. McMaster opted to corral the administration around a consensus position to boost troop levels modestly but indefinitely – but fought to overcome Trump’s own reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan, two administration officials said.

A senior administration official strongly contested the notion that Trump might change his mind, saying he'd been growing more comfortable with the way ahead, as his advisors worked through his questions like 'what would be different than before'?

Recently fired chief White House strategist Steve Bannon used the morass to promote Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s proposal to outsource the war to mercenaries and dominate Afghanistan’s assessed mineral wealth—which brought widespread Pentagon opposition.

“His proposal is deeply un-American in a colonial model but also deeply unsafe,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former overseas security contractor who operated in Africa. “You can’t scale up the number of contractors he wants to scale up and maintain quality,” said McFate, who had written a fictionalized account of some of his experiences in “Deep Black.”

Even some who contributed to the strategy discussions told The Daily Beast they were unaware of what Trump will actually announce on Monday night.

Those outside the military have little faith—and even patience—that any troop increase can turn around a 15-year war that has outlasted two presidents. To some of those observers, including those deeply familiar with the Obama administration’s approach to Afghanistan, it smacks of Groundhog Day.

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"It seems like 2011 all over again," Chris Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who served four tours in Afghanistan, told the Daily Beast. "We're kicking the can not just down the road, but around in a circle."

U.S. commanders have argued that the 2009 strategy under President Barack Obama wasn’t wrong—the idea being to help the Afghans win back territory and buy time to grow Afghan security forces—but that it was hobbled by Obama’s public announcement of a withdrawal deadline, which gave the Taliban a timeline to wait out the war until U.S. troop strength dropped.

The Taliban now control up to 50 percent of populated areas of the country, and the Afghan army and police have been losing so many forces on the battlefield, they can’t be replaced fast enough. U.S. commanding Gen. Mick Nicholson has asked for between 3,500 to 5,000 troops, for a combination of missions: train more Afghans; step up the hunt for terrorists and provide more intelligence support via both drones and operators. The difference is withdrawal would be based on “conditions,” i.e. troops would only withdraw when a certain number of Afghan troops is trained, a certain percentage of the country is regained from the Taliban, and/or the Afghan government holds successful talks with the Taliban, convincing them to disarm and join the political process.

From Kolenda’s perspective, the U.S.’ “mini-surge” is simply not a realistic option to force the Taliban to sue for peace, as it represents “hoping against the tide of history,” he said.

Perhaps. But U.S. officials and Capitol Hill penny pinchers have argued that Trump could make a virtue of the multi-million-dollar cost savings of replacing support contractors with the U.S. troops that were originally intended to do those jobs. In order to meet the Obama era troop cap of roughly 8,400, but get the maximum number of combat and training troops to the field, U.S. commanders engaged in a bit of creative math: they sent combat brigades shorn of their “enabling” units—the soldiers who run radios, or drive and fix trucks, or even the mechanics that keep U.S. aircraft in the air—replacing them with civilian contractors that cost sometimes three times as much as keeping a soldier in the field.

As of July, Central Command currently has approximately 23,525 contractors in Afghanistan: 9,436 Americans; 8,873 from an outside country and 5,216 locals, all supporting the mission of the roughly 8,400 U.S. combat troops. Almost 8,000 of those are devoted to logistics and maintenance and 3,700 devoted to security, including 1,695 armed security contractors.

Those are all jobs that could be done more cheaply by deploying U.S. troops. That’s actually down slightly from 26,435 contractors the year before, but still adds up to a hefty price tag.

The U.S. Army complained to Congress that such swaps were costing tens of millions of dollars extra a year to pay contract engineers sent to army aircraft in lieu of the Army engineers who would normally do the job.

“Troop levels decreased from approximately 1,900 soldiers in 2013 to 800 by Jan 2015,” the Army wrote in a memo to the House Armed Services Committee seen by The Daily Beast. But the number of aircraft that needed to be kept in flight stayed the same—100.

That meant that for the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne deployments in 2016, an average of 390 private contractors had to be hired, at the cost of $86 million a year, the Army memo to Congress said. When the 4th Infantry Division deployed there in 2017, it hired 427 personnel at the cost of $101 million last year, in part because of an increased operational tempo: besieged Afghan forces needed even more help, and because Obama greenlit U.S. troops hunting hundreds of ISIS fighters in the country. (Ironically, that also means those army engineers still get promoted to supervisory positions, without having actually taken care of those aircraft in the warzone.)

In other words, replacing these contractors with American troops could essentially amount to a surge inside U.S. bases—rather than one on the battlefield, depending on the ratio of combat to support troops Mattis decides to send.

Conditions for U.S. troop withdrawal could be loosely defined, said Trump transition adviser James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. If Afghanistan meets U.S. security interests in that "it’s no longer a source for regional instability or a platform for transnational terrorism, then you could declare the strategy a success," Carafano said in an interview Monday.“They also promised tough love for Pakistan,” Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. “We’re going to hold the Pakistanis accountable for when they do stuff that’s not in our interest,” like sanctioning people suspected of supporting terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network.

But getting regional powers to cooperate will be harder than ever—and it was already tough. A leading scholar of the region assesses that South Asia has soured on American power–an ominous circumstance for what Mattis has called a “South Asia strategy.”

With the exception of India, the Taliban has achieved a quiet but profound diplomatic victory in convincing regional governments that the long term presence of the U.S. military harms them more than it helps. Russia and Iran have lent the Taliban aid to bloody America’s nose. China's growing economic relationship with Pakistan provides Islamabad with an alternative to Washington's pressure.

All this is a major complication for the military's belief that it can and ought to project power out of Afghanistan indefinitely, said Barnett Rubin of New York University, a former adviser to the State Department on Afghanistan.

The military contends that a "U.S. presence over the long term in the region is stabilizing," Rubin said, "but that's not true, it's destabilizing, because it unites everyone there against us. They don't see us as projecting power. They see us acting against their interests."

The region's governments, who bear the brunt of the war, are less interested in another U.S. military buildup than an ultimate drawdown—something the Trump administration is signaling its disinterest toward, at least according to a set timeline. "They will be looking at whether the U.S. has a serious plan for ending the war through a political settlement, as will NATO allies," said Laurel Miller, who until June was the State Department's top Afghanistan and Pakistan policy troubleshooter.

Pakistan has withstood over 15 years of Washington pressure. Local press reports are already showing an expectation that the administration will present it with aid conditioned on its cooperation in Afghanistan. In June, Mattis blocked $50 million in assistance to protest what the Pentagon considers inadequate Pakistani steps against the extremist Haqqani Network.

"Pressure will have to be complemented by showing the Pakistanis that the U.S. is seriously pursuing a political solution in Afghanistan that sufficiently aligns with Pakistan's interests," Miller said. "If the U.S. adopts a punitive approach to Pakistan, they have ways to inflict pain in return, including by cutting off military supply lines into Afghanistan."