A presidential decision on a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, long delayed and the subject of bitter dispute inside the White House, may finally be at hand. Key members of the Trump administration’s war council met with the president on August 10 at the summer White House in Bedminster, N.J., and presented him with a trio of options for the 16-year-old conflict, according to senior government officials. These range from an open-ended mission for a beefed-up American military force to a near-complete withdrawal of American forces.
It is, perhaps, a reflection of this unique presidency that the future of America’s longest-running war will be decided at a luxury golf club in New Jersey. But it is a better measure of the president’s disappointment in the current conduct of the fight and in the plans that his national security team have previously presented to him. Trump firmly expressed that disappointment in a heated National Security Council meeting last month, when he declared that the war was being lost and mused about firing Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander in Afghanistan.
The Bedminster initiative was set in motion at an August 3 meeting of the NSC’s principals committee, where the president’s rebuke hung heavy in the air. To drive home the point that Trump wanted new ideas, Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over the meeting, tasked three men with preparing best-case options for the war. One of them was national security adviser H. R. McMaster, which was no surprise, given that he has taken the lead role in developing a new Afghan strategy since assuming his job in February.
The other two men charged with presenting strategy options were more telling choices: Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions, stalwart of the America First camp, has long been “the biggest skeptic in the room” when the subject of a continued presence in Afghanistan arises in meetings of Trump’s war cabinet, according to one participant in those meetings. Said another White House official, who is sympathetic to Sessions’ position, “The A.G. asks the same question: Is this what we were elected to do? And the answer to the question is no.”
Pence made it clear at the August 3 meeting that Pompeo and Sessions were being given strategy assignments because Trump wanted a variety of proposals. According to an official who attended the meeting, Pence told the group, “I don’t want to give the president something that he might feel is a stacked deck.” Implicit in that remark was the concern that McMaster might present strategy choices tilted toward his preferred military option.
As it happened, Pompeo was not physically present at the meeting—he joined via secure link. He had quietly gone to Afghanistan to investigate a stark alternative to the war strategy that McMaster had been developing for months. McMaster’s strategy has evolved over time, but it is believed to reflect both his status as an active-duty Army officer and his personal experience fighting in Afghanistan.
Obama sent 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in late 2009 and regretted this decision almost from the start. He attached an end-date to his surge—to be quickly followed by full American withdrawal. Critics knew the Taliban would wait it out, and they did. Obama never got his full withdrawal, either, and toward the end of his presidency, with the Taliban resurgent, even allowed the return of a few thousand more troops for the purpose of training Afghan military and police. There are now about 8,500 American soldiers in Afghanistan, and another 20,000 to 30,000 contractors providing logistics—enough to slow, but not prevent, ultimate Taliban victory.
McMaster does not see the Afghanistan problem as intractable and is said to favor an approach that is not dissimilar to the one tried by Obama with the important exception of not imposing an end-date for the deployment. The mission would be to stand up the Afghan military, strengthen the fragile Afghan government, claim Pakistani support, and put enough pressure on the Taliban to force them to the negotiating table. In May, Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reported that the most ambitious version of McMaster’s plan would increase the American force to 50,000. After it became clear that Trump would never approve such a plan, officials say, McMaster scaled it back.
Trump’s national security adviser is both a scholar and battlefield hero, and his plan would certainly win the approval of most of the professional military. But his constituency is Trump, who remains pointedly skeptical of the possibility of success in Afghanistan.
Encouraging that skepticism are the America Firsters in the administration, led by Sessions and Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who is firmly fixed on the idea of Afghanistan as graveyard of empires. It may be owing to his conversations with Bannon that the president has cited to his war cabinet the unhappy experiences of the British at the Khyber Pass and even quoted Alexander the Great (“Afghanistan is easy to march into, but hard to march out of”).
Bannon vehemently opposes what he calls McMaster’s “Big Army plan,” and his argument to the president is at least partly a political calculation: Does Trump want to explain to voters why he’s committing $50 billion to build schools in Afghanistan (on top of a 16-year military expenditure that is already nearing $1 trillion) before starting the infrastructure projects he’s promised to Michigan and Ohio?
His approach would be to send the conventional American troops home and replace them with a small group of Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitary fighters, and private contractors, complemented by American airpower. The aim of such a mission, those familiar with it say, would be less nation-building and more killing insurgents.
A version of that approach got a public airing in late May when Erik D. Prince—the founder of the military contractor Blackwater and the brother of Education secretary Betsy DeVos—published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for an American viceroy on the MacArthur model for Afghanistan who would direct a small but potent army of special operators and private contractors. “Since few people have served, no one’s comfortable calling bulls— on the generals,” says Prince, a former Navy SEAL. “No one actually says, ‘Wait a minute, stop. Sixteen years, and you want to do the same thing? The definition of insanity is to do the same thing, expecting different results.” Though he sold Blackwater, Prince runs another military contractor called Frontier Services Group and would stand to benefit from such a plan, of course. He says he wrote his article “for an audience of one” and that he has been told that the president was impressed. In a campaign that shows he understands his audience well, Prince was a fixture on television in the days leading up to the Bedminster meeting.
The viceroy route seems an unlikely outcome, as does a war effort that is mostly privatized—not least because it would be so stoutly resisted by the uniformed military, the intelligence community, and Congress.
CIA director Pompeo declined to discuss his trip to Afghanistan or the plan that he presented to Trump in Bedminster on August 10. But two people who have spoken to him about it say that, in essence, it reflects key elements of the Bannon argument. “It’s a CIA-heavy plan,” said one of those people, but equally relies heavily on a small but select military force. Such a plan might appeal to Trump, who, no doubt, has been reminded of the swift success that a relatively few CIA and Special Forces operators had in routing the Taliban in the early days of the Afghan war.
Trump is expected to make a decision on an Afghan strategy by the time he returns to Washington on August 21, if not before. The resurgence of the Taliban, and the likely aftermath of an American withdrawal—a vacuum filled by violent extremists, hoping to build a new caliphate—poses a keen dilemma for Trump.
“The fundamental tension in Trump’s thinking is he doesn’t want nation-building, big expensive foreign projects,” notes a terrorism expert who has briefed administration officials on the situation in Afghanistan. “But he doesn’t want to look at television news and see the American flag coming down as the black flag of jihad rises, and the leader of the Taliban giving a victory speech from the middle of Kabul. This is a nightmare scenario. He doesn’t want that to happen.”
Peter J. Boyer is national correspondent at The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard