Reporters I talk to tell me that the Trump administration remains deeply divided on how to proceed in Afghanistan. The internal debate appears to mirror the one that played out in 2006 when the George W. Bush administration wrestled with what to do with an Iraq War that had gone badly awry.
At that time, the Pentagon convened a so-called “Council of Colonels” to study the situation and identify available alternatives. The group, which included a rising star by the name of H.R. McMaster, came up with three basic options. They were: 1) Go Big, 2) Go Long, or 3) Go Home. Ultimately, President George W. Bush opted, in effect, for a combination of 1) and 2). The result was the Iraq Surge of 2007-2008.
In the event, however, it turned out that Big — an additional increment of 30,000 troops — wasn’t big enough. And Long — the final two years of the Bush administration — wasn’t long enough. A decade later controversy about who to blame persists, but by any measure Iraq remains an epic failure of U.S. policy.
As far as present day Afghanistan is concerned, Go Big is not a plausible option. Presumably, it should be possible for the world’s greatest military to defeat the Taliban and the other primitively-armed Islamist groups active in Afghanistan. Yet political willingness to commit several tens of thousands of U.S. troops in an effort to win outright simply doesn’t exist.
Having now risen to the post of national security adviser, McMaster reportedly wants to Go Long, apparently clinging to the view that the nation-building project once grandly known as Operation Enduring Freedom can yet be redeemed. Steve Bannon, viewed in some quarters as the American Rasputin, supposedly wants to Go Home, with Mattis either uncommitted or somewhere in between.
How General Turner’s ultimate boss, the commander-in-chief, figures in all of this is difficult to say. Not least among the reasons that Afghanistan today is “strategy free” is that Trump himself has demonstrated remarkably little interest in what goes on there. Overseeing the Afghanistan War does not number among his priorities.
Worse still, members of the press share in Trump’s inclination to treat Afghanistan as an afterthought. The New York Times and the Washington Post … when it comes to setting editorial priorities, both papers choose to treat the Afghanistan War as a matter of marginal importance. Notably, neither paper maintains an active presence in Kabul.
hat-tip Stephen Neil