U.S. foreign policy
Administration’s lack of clarity frustrates Pentagon
Arecent highly publicized meeting at the Pentagon attended by President Trump and top administration officials lasted more than two hours and touched on many topics. But it provided no clarity on the long-game plan for Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and other major national security issues.
The meeting was a “broader discussion of the security situation,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters.
Trump has put his trust in Mattis and senior military leaders to chart a path forward for U.S. forces fighting in the Middle East and South Asia. But while exhaustive reviews and debates continue at the Pentagon, generals fear that the lack of a foreign policy direction from the White House will keep the military from succeeding.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he cannot recall a time during his 40-year military career when security challenges have been more complex than they are now. U.S. forces are fighting hard, but the military cannot fill a policy vacuum, he noted. If he has learned anything from decades of military service, it is that “there is not … one challenge that we confront in the U.S. military that can be solved militarily,” Dunford said at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo., in July.
“Foreign policy is what is going to determine our success or failure as a nation,” he said. The convoluted security situation the United States faces today “can only be solved with a good framework of foreign policy. We can have the greatest military in the world. But if we don’t have clarity in our political objectives, if we haven’t properly resourced the State Department, if our foreign policy and our allies aren’t strong, we’ll never be successful.”
When asked by NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell about his relationship with the president, Dunford said he found Trump to be “a curious individual” who asks a lot of questions and challenges “fundamental assumptions we make as military leaders.”
The State Department has a central role in resolving daunting security problems faced by the United States and its allies, said Dunford. The administration’s 2018 spending plan, which slashes the State Department’s budget by 37 percent, is a huge concern for the Pentagon, he said.
“I view the Department of Defense as being in support of the Department of State,” he noted. A House committee has restored some of the funding, but there is still a long way to
go before the final budget numbers are settled. Dunford said he would not speculate on how Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might deal with the situation, but insisted that the Pentagon needs State to lead in “stabilizing” hot spots around the world.
The Afghan military badly needs trainers and more help developing its air force, said Dunford. He noted that the U.S. military presence there has plummeted from 140,000 troops in 2013 to 8,700 today. Mattis has not yet made a decision on future force size. “We are not going to do that until after the president has decided on a strategic framework within which our support for the Afghan forces takes place,” said Dunford. “The purpose of more forces would be to train the Afghans … if we have a strategy that supports that.”
The Pentagon will push back on demands for hard deadlines, said Dunford. “When you put artificial timelines on things, they are seldom obtained,” he said. “The conversation we are having now is: What are the conditions under which we can transition our mission?”
Mattis said it’s also important to get allies on board, and convince them that it will be worth sending more troops. “We’ve got to get this thing right,” he told reporters at the Pentagon. “You have to analyze the problems, break it down. Then you have to fuse it back together: What the problem is and the solutions, line by line.”
The process is taking longer than Washington has patience for, said Mattis.
“You look at what is the political, the policy end state. Then you put the end ways and means together. It is not easy.” Again, there has to be policy framework. “The last thing I want to do is send troops in there and find I sent troops in for something I’ve just canceled,” the defense secretary said. “These troops go in harm’s way, so you got to be careful about this.”
Trump has delegated tactical decisions, but the White House still has to set big-picture goals, Mattis said. “He delegated not one bit of the strategy. That is his and his alone.” The conventional wisdom that “generals are running things” is not so cut and dried. Trump empowered the Pentagon at the tactical level, said Mattis, “in order to do what he said he wanted done, an accelerated campaign.”
The Afghanistan strategy has to be a “political decision,” he said. “You fight wars for a reason … There’s got to be some end state to it, you come up with a political reason for it. Once you get the policy right, then you have to get the strategy right.”
The American people voted in a new administration, said Mattis. “They assume they’ll use their head” and they’ll do the rigorous analysis.
With significant U.S. help, Iraqi forces in July recaptured the city of Mosul from ISIS. They are preparing to move west and try to drive ISIS out of Hawija and Tal Afar, where 2,000 Islamic State fighters are concentrated. “A lot of fighting remains to be done,” said Dunford.
This is another case where the military would like more clarity on the political objectives. Iraqi forces have made U.S. participation more difficult by engaging in revenge sectarian killings. “We do not provide support to people who violate human rights,” said Dunford. “In Iraq we have seen some incidents. The government said they would not happen again.”
Trump has only made triumphalist statements so far. “We’re doing very well against ISIS. ISIS is falling fast. Very fast,” the president said.
But there is no political solution in sight, said Robin Wright, a foreign policy expert at the United States Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Whatever happens in Mosul will determine the fate of Iraq,” she said at the Aspen Security Forum. “The truth is, 14 years after the U.S. intervention, there is no political formula worked out yet for sharing power and solving the core issues that led many in Mosul originally to support ISIS or to question the Iraqi government.” When there are Shiite militias running all over Mosul, it creates a “real sense of insecurity” in a city that has been dominated by Sunnis.
The Pentagon has not yet agreed to send more troops to Iraq, Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said. “We’re actively engaged with the Iraqis in discussing that.”
Former CIA analyst John Nixon, the first U.S. official chosen to interrogate Saddam Hussein when he was captured in 2003, is watching the situation in Iraq unfold and sees no endgame.
“I think Mattis understands that this president does not want to necessarily remain in the region to clean things up. In the president’s words, ‘That’s for losers to do,’” Nixon told RealClearDefense. “And I also think that the Trump administration does not want to be part of some open-ended commitment that will bleed us militarily and financially with little return.”
It also must exasperate military officials that “there is no rhyme or reason to how things are done in this administration,” Nixon said. “Just when you think you know what their priorities are, there’s a tweet that undoes everything and you have to go back to square one.”
It doesn’t matter how many ISIS leaders are killed, said Nixon. They may hibernate after taking bad losses but eventually they “resurface a little stronger,” he said. “As long as the issues that give rise to a group like ISIS are not addressed—sectarianism, access to oil funds, sharing of power in Baghdad—I don’t see how the Sunni community will be embraced by the Shiite community, or be allowed to have important positions in government. Iran will not allow it.” The alienation of Sunnis is part of what gives ISIS something to work with.
“I’m not optimistic at all,” Nixon said. “I’ve heard victory declared so many times in the war on terror.”
In Syria, U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces have occupied 50 percent of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. Meanwhile, the Pentagon hopes for a political resolution as the situation deteriorates. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime will remain in power with Russia’s and Iran’s support. The Trump administration ended a CIA program to arm and train rebel groups. And the so-called deconfliction plan to prevent U.S. and Russian airplanes from shooting at each other has caused friction between both militaries.
Ceasefire negotiations continue, but Mattis said the Pentagon is not involved. “It’s diplomatically led,” he said.
Regarding the chances of success in Raqqa, Mattis cautioned that, as with most urban fights, “unless the enemy absolutely caves in, it lends itself to the defenders. So it’s going to be a tough fight.”
Special Operations Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas said finishing the job in any war is “the hardest part.” Arguably, “we haven’t finished anything very effectively over the last couple decades, from a military standpoint,” he said in an interview with Fox News’ Catherine Herridge.
Amid so much uncertainty, even Trump’s toughest critics and political rivals hope the president soon gains a firmer grip on foreign affairs. “Some good things are happening,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “But people see what’s going on and wonder: ‘What is the policy of the United States?’ That’s a problem,” he said at the Aspen Security Forum.
The retaking of Mosul from ISIS is a “positive action” but that hardly equates to a coherent foreign policy, he said. The president siding with Saudi Arabia in a dispute between several Arab nations and U.S. ally Qatar is self-destructive behavior, said Schiff.
“The dissonance between the presidential statements and the foreign policy team has created enormous headaches for the execution of our strategy.”