U.S. for­eign pol­icy

Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lack of clar­ity frus­trates Pen­tagon

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - SAN­DRA ERWIN

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.”

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN DEERING

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