Usually when a president agrees to send more troops to a war zone, it’s part of a broader strategy. George W. Bush approved the surge of forces to Iraq as part of a population-centric counterinsurgency war plan. Barack Obama did the same in his first year when it came to Afghanistan, though he eventually regretted the decision, and spent most of his presidency trying to end that war.
For Donald Trump it’s different. On Tuesday, he agreed in principle to send more troops to Afghanistan, but he has yet to agree to the broader strategy for winning America’s longest war.
That strategy is still technically in development, but its broad outlines — an increase in special operations forces to train, advise and assist Afghan forces; a more robust plan to go after elements in Pakistan that aid the Taliban; the deployment of more air power and artillery; and a political commitment to the survival of the current government in Kabul — have been in place since April.
Indeed, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has been pressing the case for the strategy with cabinet secretaries and the president. Initially he had hoped to get the president to agree to the strategy before last month’s NATO summit.
In a meeting of the National Security Council, according to two administration officials, Trump declined to make a decision to lift the so-called force management levels, the caps on U.S. forces in Afghanistan set by Obama. Today there are approximately 8,500 US forces in the country, along with many contractors who provide logistical support for U.S. war fighters.
In a meeting in the Oval Office with McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump agreed to lift the caps on troop levels in Afghanistan and allow Mattis to determine how many forces to send to the war there.
In the private meeting with the president on Tuesday, according to administration officials, Mattis, McMaster and Tillerson made the case that U.S. commanders needed flexibility to send more forces to Afghanistan now in order to prevent a disaster. The Afghan government has been slowly losing the fight with the Taliban since 2015. More recently, US military leaders have testified before Congress that the U.S. is losing the war. The dire situation was brought home over the weekend when the Taliban claimed credit for infiltrating an Afghan unit and killing three U.S. soldiers in Nangarhar province.
It’s also important because U.S. officials tell me that removing the limits on U.S. forces in Afghanistan was the key stumbling block for the president to accept the broader regional strategy and war plan for Afghanistan. While no number for a troop increase has been agreed, the fact that Trump has accepted that he will be sending more U.S. forces to the country represents a change for the president, who campaigned against nation-building.
That strategy is expected to be ready for the president’s decision sometime next month. Some lawmakers are growing impatient. On Tuesday, Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Mattis: “It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy. We know what the strategy was for the last eight years — don’t lose. That hasn’t worked.”
Mattis replied that a strategy was being put together now, and that “there are actions being taken to make certain we don’t pay a price for the delay.” He added, “We recognize the need for urgency, and your criticism is fair, sir.”
What Mattis didn’t say is why McCain has yet to see Trump’s Afghanistan strategy: because Trump hasn’t agreed to the one his top advisers prepared more than two months ago.