I Thought Trump Knew Better Than the Generals

He’s barely been office for 100 days and I’m already tired of critiquing Donald Trump’s hypocrisy, but I am quite sure that when he said he knew more than the generals he wasn’t sending the message (or the message that was received wasn’t) that he was going to delegate all decision making to the Pentagon. Yet, if he signs off on the newest plan for Afghanistan, that is exactly what he will be doing.

The plan envisions an increase of at least 3,000 U.S. troops to an existing force of about 8,400. The U.S. force would also be bolstered by requests for matching troops from NATO nations.

But, in keeping with the Trump administration’s desire to empower military decision-making, the Pentagon would have final say on troop levels and how those forces are employed on the battlefield.

The Pentagon would not only have “the final say” on troop levels, they would also have “far broader authority to use airstrikes to target Taliban militants” and restored authority to move U.S. military advisers around on the battlefield in ways that were restricted under Obama’s rules of engagement.

I could get into more detail, for example, about the irony of this plan requesting matching troops from the obsolete NATO or of Trump expanding our commitment to Afghanistan after seeming to promise fewer wars (at least to Susan Sarandon) than Hillary Clinton would wage.

But Trump hasn’t signed off on this plan yet. It looks like it’s coming in response to his desire for a plan to show that we’re “winning” again. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the military would have a military solution for that request, and if you want to knock the Taliban back on their heels for a spell, you do need more troops to do it.

Unsurprisingly, there is pushback from elements in the White House who took seriously Trump’s promise of fewer foreign military adventures. It’s probably no coincidence that Eli Lake has a piece up at Bloomberg that says that the president is unhappy with his National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster. It fits with this bit from the Washington Post article on the Afghan surge:

Even as it moves to the president’s desk, the proposal faces resistance from some senior administration officials who fear a repeat of earlier decisions to intensify military efforts that produced only temporary improvements.

Inside the White House, those opposed to the plan have begun to refer derisively to the strategy as “McMaster’s War,” a reference to H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser. The general, who once led anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan and was one of the architects of President George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, is the driving force behind the new strategy at the White House.

The truth is, no one wants to be responsible if the Taliban take over Afghanistan again or it becomes a hive of international terrorist planning where Americans are denied access to bases. That won’t look like “winning” to Donald Trump or even most of his fans who oppose further efforts to stand up the government in Kabul.

If we want to avoid that future, we can keep pushing the day off with a plan that won’t allow us to ever stop pushing. Or we can look for some more creative thinking. The Pentagon has some smart folks, so it’s not that they couldn’t be part of the solution. But if you give them stupid tasks, what you’ll get are stupid plans.

Trump’s impulses are irreconcilable. He wants to “win” but he doesn’t have any solutions other than more of what hasn’t been working. Even in his jumbled mind, he could see and critique what wasn’t working in Afghanistan, and also in Iraq and Syria. What he couldn’t grasp is that these areas are hard to manage because they’re incredibly complex and defy simple solutions. Leaving them alone has a lot of appeal but also terrible consequences. Getting bogged down in them militarily is no less problematic. As a candidate, he bounced between these two polls like a manic off his medication. Now that he’s in power, he’s trying to a little of both, which is probably a worse idea than committing to one or the other.

One thing I know is that no other president in my lifetime would countenance a plan that would give away their core duties as commander in chief. The Pentagon suggests troop levels, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of twice what they think they really need. It’s up to the president to fix the level. If the Pentagon has been authorized to use lethal force, the president is still responsible if something goes wrong. He can’t just give the Pentagon carte blanche to bomb anyone with any weapon for any reason and think that his responsibility ends there.

This policy, if adopted, would basically be Trump saying that only the generals know enough to make these decisions, and while that may be true in this case it is still the opposite of what he boasted of on the campaign.

It would be another broken promise.

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