Pen­tagon wel­comes Trump free­dom

Af­ter Obama yoke, lead­ers now know they bear blame when mis­sions fail

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY CARLO MUÑOZ

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials are wel­com­ing the greater au­ton­omy and de­ci­sion-mak­ing author­ity un­der Pres­i­dent Trump, af­ter what they say were years of Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion mi­cro­manag­ing.

Within the hall­ways and of­fices of the Pen­tagon, top mil­i­tary brass and na­tional se­cu­rity lead­ers have lauded the ac­tions taken by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, say­ing pri­vately that the De­fense De­part­ment now has an op­por­tu­nity to take the fight to Amer­ica’s en­e­mies af­ter be­ing freed from the White House’s heavy yoke un­der Pres­i­dent Obama.

Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion to grant De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis the author­ity to set U.S. troop lev­els for Afghanistan and the fight against Is­lamic State could ease the bit­ter bu­reau­cratic bat­tles that di­vided the Obama White House and the de­part­ment over war strat­egy.

Mr. Mat­tis and his aides are now weigh­ing whether to send 3,000 to 5,000 more troops into Afghanistan in the face of re­cent gains by the Tal­iban and Is­lamic State. Mr. Mat­tis, who said Mr. Trump re­mains heav­ily in­volved in set­ting the over­all strat­egy, is ex­pected to make his rec­om­men­da­tions by next month.

De­fense hawks on Capi­tol Hill have praised the ap­proach, ar­gu­ing that the mil­i­tary lead­ers have a much bet­ter sense of what it takes to fight — and win — in bat­tle zones such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

“What a novel idea for the com­man­derin-chief to turn to his com­man­ders and say, ‘What do you need to win?’” Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, South Carolina Repub­li­can, told Mr. Mat­tis at a bud­get hear­ing last week. “Obama was a pretty lousy gen­eral.”

Some skep­tics warn that with great power comes un­com­fort­able re­spon­si­bil­ity for the De­fense De­part­ment, given Mr. Trump’s record of cast­ing blame down the chain of com­mand when cer­tain op­er­a­tions go awry. If cam­paigns such as the one in Afghanistan fail to make progress, then the Pen­tagon will shoul­der far more of the blame with far less po­lit­i­cal cover.

Mr. Trump pre­vi­ously agreed to give U.S. and coali­tion com­man­ders in Iraq and Syria greater free­dom on or­der­ing airstrikes, fur­ther in­gra­ti­at­ing the new ad­min­is­tra­tion into the good graces of top mil­i­tary brass.

Mr. Trump has fi­nally “given the mil­i­tary what it needed to win” in Afghanistan, Iraq and else­where, said David Sed­ney, a one­time Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion aide and now a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

As Mr. Obama’s deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for Afghanistan, Pak­istan and Cen­tral Asia from 2009 to 2013, Mr. Sed­ney had a front-row seat to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to run war pol­icy from the White House.

“It took 11 months to come up with an Afghanistan pol­icy, which [Mr. Obama] kept re­view­ing over and over again,” Mr. Sed­ney said in an in­ter­view, re­call­ing the end­less White House meet­ings tied to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­ter­nal de­bates over the Afghanistan War. Beguiled by “ar­ti­fi­cial time­lines and ar­ti­fi­cial troop caps … with no re­la­tion to the sit­u­a­tion on the ground,” Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan plan was a halfmea­sure that ex­tended the con­flict in­stead of end­ing it, he said.

Mr. Obama cast a wary eye on the Pen­tagon dur­ing his ten­ure, re­port­edly com­plain­ing that the gen­er­als and ad­mi­rals were try­ing to box him in to choose a mil­i­tary op­tion in de­bates such as the one over troop lev­els in Afghanistan.

A lack of strat­egy?

Some an­a­lysts say the stepped-up tempo of mil­i­tary ac­tion un­der Mr. Trump — in­clud­ing a cruise mis­sile strike to pun­ish Syria for us­ing chem­i­cal weapons and the drop­ping of the world’s most pow­er­ful con­ven­tional bomb on Is­lamic State tar­gets in Afghanistan — are meant partly to ob­scure the fact that Mr. Trump has yet to for­mu­late a con­crete mil­i­tary and diplo­matic strat­egy for ei­ther Afghanistan or the war against Is­lamic State.

“Lots of DOD folks are Repub­li­cans and did find Obama frus­trat­ing, so I have lit­tle doubt that at an emo­tional level, there is some re­lief. But drop­ping a few more bombs isn’t a strat­egy, and with­out ef­fec­tive strate­gies, the emo­tional uplift of hav­ing a new pres­i­dent won’t last long,” said Michael O’Han­lon, a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“I think it’s too early to draw con­clu­sions … [and] I’d coun­sel folks at the Pen­tagon to avoid too many spikes of foot­balls in the end zone just yet,” he said in an in­ter­view.

The pres­i­dent’s pen­chant “to del­e­gate blame when things go wrong” is the neg­a­tive flip side of the Pen­tagon’s free­dom, said Hal Brands, a de­fense of­fi­cial in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and now a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Washington-based Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Bud­getary As­sess­ments.

Crit­ics cite in par­tic­u­lar Mr. Trump’s re­marks af­ter an in­con­clu­sive covert mis­sion in Ye­men that he ap­proved just days af­ter tak­ing of­fice in Jan­uary. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said the raid yielded valu­able in­tel­li­gence, but Navy SEAL Chief Petty Of­fi­cer Wil­liam “Ryan” Owens and a num­ber of civil­ians were killed.

The raid, Mr. Trump later told Fox News, was “started be­fore I got here” and was “some­thing that, you know … [the De­fense De­part­ment] wanted to do.”

He added, “My gen­er­als are the most re­spected that we’ve had in many decades … and they lost Ryan.”

“In some ways, that leads to chaos,” Mr. Brands said. “I am sure that is cre­at­ing frus­tra­tion, and not just in DOD.”

Pol­icy plan­ners in­side the Pen­tagon are keep­ing a wary eye on their so­cial me­dia ac­counts for fear of be­ing “un­der­cut by the next tweet from the White House,” he said.

In the end, the De­fense De­part­ment “may ul­ti­mately not be happy with what they get from this ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he said. “When things go wrong, this is not a pres­i­dent who will say, ‘The buck stops here.’”

Chain of com­mand

Frus­tra­tion with in­ter­fer­ence from the White House un­der Mr. Obama ap­pears to have peaked near the end of his sec­ond term. Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man John McCain, Ari­zona Repub­li­can, ob­served in late 2015 that “there’s a level of dis­sat­is­fac­tion among the uni­formed mil­i­tary that I’ve never seen in my time here.”

Na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy faced “sig­nif­i­cant White House scru­tiny and in­ter­a­gency over­sight … over seem­ingly mun­dane mat­ters” un­der Mr. Obama, Mr. Brands said. “While it was not un­prece­dented, it was fairly higher than the norm.”

But Mr. Obama’s ap­pre­hen­sion over hand­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary too much tac­ti­cal con­trol, over fears that those de­ci­sions would have po­lit­i­cal im­pacts far be­yond the bat­tle­field, catered to a “nar­row do­mes­tic au­di­ence” at the ex­pense of the over­all war ef­fort, Mr. Sed­ney said.

“It kept get­ting us dis­tracted. … That was all in­side-the-Belt­way, navel-gaz­ing,” he said. “It was re­ally ir­rel­e­vant to what was go­ing on in the war.”

Early set­backs

U.S. mil­i­tary lead­ers have suf­fered some set­backs while tak­ing ad­van­tage of their new­found author­i­ties on the bat­tle­field. In March, U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand chief Joseph Vo­tel was forced to de­fend mul­ti­ple cases of mass civil­ian ca­su­al­ties tied to in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive U.S. airstrikes against Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Com­mand and coali­tion lead­ers con­ducted three in­quires that month into U.S. airstrikes against Is­lamic State po­si­tions, in­clud­ing one in the western Mosul neigh­bor­hood of al-Ja­dida, which re­port­edly lev­eled sev­eral build­ings and left hun­dreds of Iraqi civil­ians dead.

“These are ab­so­lutely tragic and heart­break­ing sit­u­a­tions,” Gen. Vo­tel told the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee at the time. He said each al­le­ga­tion of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties tied to U.S. op­er­a­tions is taken se­ri­ously.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq and Syria, ac­knowl­edged days af­ter the at­tack that there was “a fair chance” a U.S. airstrike played a role in the de­struc­tion and car­nage in al-Ja­dida.

“We prob­a­bly had a role in those ca­su­al­ties,” the gen­eral said, adding that “the en­emy had a hand in this.” He was sug­gest­ing Is­lamic State’s use of civil­ians as hu­man shields and ques­tion­ing why so many civil­ians would vol­un­tar­ily gather in a sin­gle build­ing un­der as­sault by Amer­i­can air power.

The Pen­tagon on June 2 ac­knowl­edged that civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in the Mid­dle East had risen sharply since Mr. Trump took of­fice, re­flect­ing in part the na­ture of ur­ban war­fare in the cam­paigns against Is­lamic State fight­ers in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.

“At least 484 civil­ians have been un­in­ten­tion­ally killed by coali­tion strikes” since 2014, U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, or Cent­com, said in the June 2 state­ment. That num­ber was up from 199 just four months ear­lier. Pri­vate watch­dog groups say the civil­ian deaths from U.S. and al­lied bomb­ing strikes are far higher.

The drop­ping of the “Mother of all Bombs” or MOAB on an Is­lamic State tun­nel com­plex in Afghanistan may have se­cured a tac­ti­cal win, but it also be­came an in­stant Is­lamic State re­cruit­ing tool, Mr. Brands said.

U.S. forces de­ployed in Afghanistan and the Mid­dle East are filled with “sets of ca­pa­ble, in­tel­li­gence and sober mil­i­tary lead­ers,” Mr. Brands said. But their bat­tle­field de­ci­sions are driven “strictly for tac­ti­cal rea­sons,” which at times usurp con­sid­er­a­tions for the strate­gic or po­lit­i­cal fall­out, he added.

Gen. John Ni­chol­son, head of all U.S. and coali­tion forces in Afghanistan, or any mem­ber of the com­mand staff could have pre­dicted that kind of re­ac­tion from the MOAB use, Mr. Brands said.

The hope in­side the Trump White House that ex­panded tac­ti­cal author­ity at the De­fense De­part­ment will “achieve strate­gic suc­cesses” likely will not ma­te­ri­al­ize, he said. “I do not know if that is re­al­is­tic.”

Mr. Sed­ney said strate­gic con­sid­er­a­tions given so much heft by the Obama White House should mean less to com­bat­ant com­man­ders on the ground. Gen. Ni­chol­son’s de­ploy­ment of the MOAB was not driven by pub­lic opin­ion in Washington, he said.

“Gen. Ni­chol­son was try­ing to win a war,” Mr. Sed­ney said.


Pres­i­dent Trump has granted De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis the author­ity to set U.S. troop lev­els for Afghanistan in an at­tempt to turn around a con­flict char­ac­ter­ized by some of the worst vi­o­lence since the Tal­iban were ousted in 2001.

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