U.S. and Afghan military commanders battling the Taliban and the Islamic State are encountering an obstacle they never expected, sources close to them say: months of indecision by President Donald Trump on whether to commit thousands of additional American troops.
Instead of approving their plan for more troops as anticipated, the president has caught his generals off guard by questioning whether the 16-year-long effort to stabilize Afghanistan is still worth it, according to current and former military officials familiar with the conversations. Meanwhile, news reports raise the prospects he might replace the top U.S. commander in the region or hand private contractors the day-to-day task of advising the flagging Afghan security forces.
Amid the uncertainty, the security situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. Deaths of Afghan security forces in the early months of 2017 were “shockingly high,” the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction recently reported, continuing a years-long upward trend. The Afghan government “controls or influences” only 60 percent of the country’s 407 districts as of early this summer, down from 65 percent the same time last year, according to the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul.
“It’s important as soon as possible for senior administration officials to outline the importance of the region and why we have more combat troops in Afghanistan than in any other combat zone,” said Seth Jones, an expert on the war at the government-funded RAND Corp. who has worked alongside the U.S. military there. “Walking away right now, I can only see one direction this goes, particularly with neighboring states getting involved.”
Trump’s failure to approve a plan — any plan — has surprised U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, in the Pentagon and at the U.S. Central Command, the officials said. Some had expected the tough-talking president to give a swift sign-off on their plan to add more U.S. troops — on top of more than 8,000 already there — to advise and assist Afghan forces, despite his campaign criticisms of George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s wars.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 13 that the administration’s review of the military’s plan and troop “uplift” request, as the reinforcement is referred to internally, would be complete by mid-July. But Trump has continued to insist in National Security Council meetings that he wants to consider other options.
“The president has conflicting impulses and is hoping someone can give him a better strategy,” one government official said of the holdup.
But the impasse, combined with reports that Trump has considered replacing Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and a proposal to privatize large portions of the war, have shaken top commanders and their allies in the Afghan government and security forces. They are waiting to see how the Trump administration’s commitment to Afghan stability measures up to its predecessors’, according to officials involved in the review.
“The herd is spooked here, and the delay has a practical effect,” one American officer in Kabul said, referring to the multinational headquarters that Nicholson oversees. Without a U.S. commitment, other NATO allies are hesitant to commit reinforcements they are considering.
The delay is especially burdening the hard-hit Afghan security forces, which were counting on a stepped-up American advisory role to beat back gains by the Taliban and new inroads by the Islamic State terrorist group. The longer the decision takes, the less likely a significant number of the additional U.S. forces will arrive by the end of Afghanistan’s so-called fighting season, which lasts into the fall.
Until then, U.S. advisers can support multiple operations by Afghanistan’s commando forces, but only one large operation at a time by the conventional army. The proposed reinforcements include additional “expeditionary” adviser teams that would allow the U.S.-led command to work in four or more remote areas at once, encouraging Afghan commanders to be more aggressive.
Besides advisers to Afghan combat units, the extra troops would probably include rocket-artillery units and air controllers with expanded authority to call in strikes in support of Afghan forces. Those have been key to gains by U.S. allies in Iraq and Syria in recent months.
But instead of anticipating that Trump would have reservations about beefing up the U.S. military presence, some commanders were surprised by the president’s wariness this summer.
They missed some early warning signs.
When Trump visited MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., in February to huddle with leaders of Central Command and Special Operations Command, he used a discussion focused on Iraq and Syria to raise broad questions about U.S. military involvement overseas, a source familiar with the discussions said. That should have put them on notice about how the White House would view Nicholson’s three- to four-year plan for turning the tide against the Taliban.
“The president was like, ‘Yeah, I got what you’re telling me, but what is the United States of America getting out of it? What are our citizens getting out of this effort?’” a military source familiar with the Tampa meetings said.
Trump’s past statements might have provided a clue, too. In 2013, he tweeted repeatedly that he thought the United States should wash its hands of the Afghan conflict. “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first,” he wrote in one tweet before his presidential run.
Even so, commanders and their staffs continued to expect White House support when their revised strategy and request for reinforcements crossed the president’s desk later in the spring. It called for an expansion of the advisory effort to lower echelons of the Afghan security forces, something the U.S. did earlier in Iraq.
Instead, their plan hit a roadblock — Trump approved an increase in forces, but continued to press for different strategy options. In July, as the review dragged on, Trump told a group of reporters, “We’ve been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas.” Asked about the troop increase, he answered, “We’ll see.”
NBC then reported that Trump, in an NSC meeting the day after those public remarks, had suggested firing Nicholson. That inspired a flurry of emails from his superiors in Tampa and the Pentagon expressing their unreserved support for the general, two military sources said.
Nicholson’s backers include Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was present when the general testified over the winter that he needed extra forces, met with him during a visit to Kabul in early July and, after the NBC report, issued a statement saying Nicholson had “earned my full confidence.”
Threatening to introduce an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act in September dictating a strategy, McCain blamed U.S. failures in Afghanistan on “a lack of successful policy and strategic guidance from Washington over many years, which has continued in the first several months of this new administration.”