Trump opts not to pull all troops from Afghanistan

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

De­spite mount­ing frus­tra­tions with the course of the war, Pres­i­dent Trump has backed away from an op­tion to pull all re­main­ing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, days af­ter re­ports claimed the ad­min­is­tra­tion was se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing the move as part of its pend­ing plan of ac­tion for the 16-year-old war.

White House of­fi­cials re­port­edly had been weigh­ing plans to with­draw all 8,400 Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers from the war-torn coun­try, ef­fec­tively end­ing the mis­sion. Some voices within the White House, re­port­edly led by chief strate­gist Steve Ban­non, touted the with­drawal plan while other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials were co­a­lesc­ing around a strat­egy call­ing for more than 3,900 ad­di­tional U.S. forces to be sent into Afghanistan.

But the White House has all but aban­doned any

no­tion of a par­tial or com­plete with­drawal from the cen­tral Asian na­tion, dubbed the “zero op­tion” by Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion strate­gists, with many in­side the Pen­tagon pri­vately not­ing that the idea was es­sen­tially dead on ar­rival among se­nior mil­i­tary lead­ers.

Mr. Trump’s move to take full with­drawal off the ta­ble shows the cross-cur­rents that have marked the de­bate. White House of­fi­cials have found them­selves mired in the ef­fort to forge a new strat­egy and the right level of U.S. mil­i­tary com­mit­ment in a con­flict where the Afghan gov­ern­ment is strug­gling to re­gain the ini­tia­tive from the Tal­iban and other in­sur­gent groups.

NBC News re­ported Wed­nes­day on a top-level White House strat­egy meet­ing July 19 in which Mr. Trump com­plained bit­terly about the course of the war and even sug­gested re­plac­ing Gen. John Ni­chol­son, the top U.S. com­man­der in Afghanistan. The meet­ing made no progress in reach­ing a con­sen­sus on a new Afghanistan strat­egy, which Mr. Trump or­dered De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis and the Pen­tagon to pro­duce.

Pri­vate an­a­lysts say the de­bate over troop lev­els is a sign that deeper re­think­ing is badly needed.

“The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion should eval­u­ate the mer­its of a pro­longed com­mit­ment in de­tail, make any com­mit­ment clearly con­di­tional and set clear re­quire­ment for Afghan ac­tion,” said An­thony Cordes­man, a se­nior mil­i­tary strate­gist at the Washington-based Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. That said, Mr. Trump and his team of ad­vis­ers “can­not sim­ply sit and wait, take token ac­tion and is­sue more empty words with­out los­ing the war.”

Mr. Mat­tis and other se­nior war plan­ners at the Pen­tagon are in an in­def­i­nite hold­ing pat­tern for Afghanistan. For the past sev­eral weeks, de­fense of­fi­cials led by Mr. Mat­tis have been as­sess­ing the progress of the Afghanistan War and de­ter­min­ing what level of sup­port — in­clud­ing a 3,000- to 5,000-troop in­crease — would be re­quired to sta­bi­lize the coun­try’s se­cu­rity forces. The Pen­tagon chief pub­licly stated that the war guid­ance would be in place by mid-July.

De­fense De­part­ment spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis de­clined to com­ment on the White House’s stance on the zero op­tion for Afghanistan. He said de­part­ment of­fi­cials stood ready to carry out any ac­tions or­dered by the White House once they are fi­nal­ized and sent to the Pen­tagon.

As news was re­leased that the White House was aban­don­ing the full with­drawal op­tion Wed­nes­day, two more U.S. ca­su­al­ties in south­ern Afghanistan were re­ported. The Pen­tagon con­firmed that two Amer­i­can ser­vice mem­bers were killed af­ter a Tal­iban sui­cide bomber struck a NATO con­voy trav­el­ing through south­ern Afghanistan’s volatile Kan­da­har province. Lo­cal re­ports say three coali­tion sol­diers were wounded in the at­tack.

Of­fi­cials at Res­o­lute Sup­port, the Amer­i­canand NATO-led mil­i­tary sup­port op­er­a­tion in Afghanistan, con­firmed that coali­tion forces did suf­fer ca­su­al­ties. The two sol­diers were the eighth and ninth Amer­i­cans killed in Afghanistan this year.

De­bate con­tin­ues

The U.S. has 8,400 troops are in Afghanistan, train­ing and ad­vis­ing lo­cal se­cu­rity forces. One troop surge op­tion that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing would raise the num­ber of U.S. forces in the coun­try to over 10,000. NATO lead­ers have agreed to in­crease their troop lev­els in con­cert with the pro­posed Amer­i­can in­creases.

Mr. Trump was widely ex­pected to an­nounce de­tails of the White House’s Afghanistan plan in mid-July dur­ing a rare visit to the Pen­tagon. But Mr. Trump re­mained mum on Afghanistan dur­ing the visit, where he met with Mr. Mat­tis and Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son. As Washington heads into the leg­isla­tive dol­drums of sum­mer, the de­bate con­tin­ues among Mr. Trump’s in­ner cir­cle, na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials and mil­i­tary lead­ers on what ac­tion to take in Afghanistan.

The war in Afghanistan re­ceived lit­tle to no at­ten­tion on the cam­paign trail last year, with Demo­cratic can­di­date Hil­lary Clin­ton and Mr. Trump opt­ing to fo­cus on the U.S.-led coali­tion to de­feat Is­lamic State. But Tal­iban ad­vances this spring and the in­creased Is­lamic State pres­ence in the eastern half of Afghanistan drew more at­ten­tion to the con­flict.

That at­ten­tion was fo­cused fur­ther last week when White House of­fi­cials sug­gested that Mr. Trump was se­ri­ously con­sid­er­ing a par­tial or com­plete mil­i­tary with­drawal from Afghanistan.

“It’s a macro ques­tion as to whether the U.S., this ad­min­is­tra­tion and this pres­i­dent are com­mit­ted to stay­ing,” one se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial told The Wall Street Jour­nal on Sun­day. “It doesn’t work un­less we are there for a long time, and if we don’t have the ap­petite to be there a long time, we should just leave.”

It re­mains un­clear what prompted Mr. Trump or his ad­vis­ers to aban­don the with­drawal op­tion, but the de­ci­sion was made days af­ter for­mer Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly was named as White House chief of staff. Pulled from his lead­er­ship po­si­tion at the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity to re­place Reince Priebus, Mr. Kelly has well­doc­u­mented hawk­ish po­si­tions on Afghanistan and the Amer­i­can war there.

Mr. Kelly is an Iraq vet­eran whose son was killed dur­ing com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan. Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Michael Kelly was killed by a road­side bomb while on pa­trol in Hel­mand province in 2010.

“If you think this war against our way of life is over be­cause some of the self-ap­pointed opin­ion­mak­ers and chat­ter­ing class grow war-weary, be­cause they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mis­taken. This en­emy is ded­i­cated to our de­struc­tion,” Mr. Kelly said dur­ing a closed-door speech in 2014.

Con­gres­sional ire

The White House’s de­lay in for­mu­lat­ing a vi­able war plan for Afghanistan has drawn the ire of sev­eral de­fense-minded law­mak­ers on Capi­tol Hill.

Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, an­nounced Mon­day that he plans to draft leg­is­la­tion out­lin­ing his own Afghanistan plan and ty­ing it to the Pen­tagon’s bud­get pro­posal for the next fis­cal year.

Mr. McCain, an out­spo­ken critic of Mr. Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity poli­cies, is ex­pected to in­tro­duce an amend­ment to the De­fense De­part­ment’s spend­ing blue­print de­tail­ing what the next steps should be.

“When the Se­nate takes up the Na­tional De­fense Autho­riza­tion Act in Septem­ber, I will of­fer an amend­ment based on the ad­vice of some of our best mil­i­tary lead­ers that will pro­vide a strat­egy for suc­cess in achiev­ing Amer­ica’s na­tional in­ter­ests in Afghanistan,” Mr. McCain said in his state­ment. “Eight years of a ‘don’t lose’ strat­egy has cost us lives and trea­sure in Afghanistan. … Our troops de­serve bet­ter.”

Mr. McCain took Mr. Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity team to task over the lack of a new Afghanistan war plan in June, when Mr. Mat­tis and Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ap­peared be­fore the Se­nate de­fense panel on the Pen­tagon’s bud­get.

“I hope you un­der­stand the dilemma you are pre­sent­ing to us,” Mr. McCain said at the time.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

A U.S. mil­i­tary he­li­copter flew over the site of a sui­cide bomb that struck a NATO con­voy in Kan­da­har, Afghanistan, on Wed­nes­day, killing two Amer­i­cans who were serv­ing as part of the mil­i­tary coali­tion.

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