President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson made their way across the Potomac for a key meeting with Defense Secretary James Mattis Thursday, to discuss the way ahead in Washington’s wars in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State terror group.
The closed-door meeting comes a day after Mr. Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford briefed congressional lawmakers on the status of both campaigns, as well as details on the upcoming release of the administration’s highly anticipated Afghan war plan. The Pentagon has repeatedly stated the department’s Afghan war plan would be on President Trump’s desk by mid-July.
That plan reportedly includes a request for thousands of additional U.S. troops to be deployed to Southwest Asia. When asked whether he plans to approve plans calling for extra American forces to Afghanistan, Mr. Trump replied: “We’ll see. We’re doing very well against ISIS. ISIS is falling fast.”
For the last several weeks, defense officials led by Mr. Mattis have been assessing the current progress of the Afghan war, determining what level of support — including a 3,000 to 5,000 troop increase — will be required to stabilize the country’s security forces. Government-led analysis, as well as reviews by private sector analysts say upwards of 60 percent of Afghanistan is heavily influences or under direct sway by the Taliban.
Afghan forces, advised by U.S. and NATO forces, have suffered heavy casualties to maintain control over the 40 percent of the country ruled by the central government in Kabul.
The war in Afghanistan received little to no attention on the campaign trail last year, with Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton and then presidential candidate Donald Trump opting to focus on the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the terror group known as ISIS or ISIL. But the tenor in Washington focused back onto Southwest Asia amid growing Taliban gains in the country this spring and the increased ISIS presence in the eastern half of the country.
Currently 8,400 American troops are in Afghanistan, training and advising local security forces. Should the top end troop increase proposal go into effect, it would raise the number of U.S. forces in the country to over 10,000. On top of the increases sought by the Pentagon, NATO leaders have also agreed to surge forces into the war-torn country. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the decision during an alliance ministerial earlier this year.
The administration announced earlier this year that decisions on troop numbers would be the exclusive domain of Mr. Mattis and his staff. But recent reports state that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster instituted a soft cap of 3,900 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, raising questions over the true level of autonomy the Pentagon will have in determining the next steps in the Afghan war.
Allmost three years after former President Barack Obama promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State, the terrorist group is reeling. It has been driven from the city of Mosul in Iraq. And Raqqah, the Syrian city that serves as the capital of its so-called Caliphate, is under siege.
But depriving Islamic State of its territory won’t extinguish the movement or its capacity to plan or inspire acts of violence. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point reported last month that as of April, Islamic State fighters had launched 1,468 attacks in 16 cities that had been wrested from its control, resulting in nearly 2,600 deaths. More than 100 of those attacks occurred in the western sector of Mosul after that part of the city was recaptured.
Much as Americans might hope that the U.S. can simply declare victory and turn its attention elsewhere, the reality is that preventing Islamic State from surviving and thriving in the future will require continued diplomatic, economic and, yes, military engagement by the United States. But it will also require something that has been missing since Obama launched this campaign: congressional approval.
Islamic State, which shocked the world with its beheadings of journalists and aid workers, was previously the Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda. It was able to consolidate power in Iraq because of the disaffection of Sunni citizens with the Shia-dominated government that took power after the fall of Saddam Hussein — a government that became even less inclusive with the withdrawal of the last U.S. military forces at the end of 2011.
Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis believes that the U.S. should retain a military presence in Iraq.
Obama, who presided over that withdrawal and who announced in 2011 that “the tide of war is receding,” to his credit recognized three years later that Islamic State, if left unchecked, “could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States.” Obama was struck not only by the group’s brutality but also by the fact that it had recruited so many Europeans and Americans who could return home to commit deadly attacks. So a president who had prided himself on extricating the U.S. from foreign military entanglements ended his term by returning U.S. forces to Iraq — although the 5,000 trainers, advisers and special forces were a small fraction of the peak U.S. troop level of 170,000. Obama also ordered airstrikes on Islamic State positions in both Syria and Iraq.
Despite suggesting during his campaign that he had his own plan for defeating Islamic State, Trump has so far pursued a strategy in Iraq strikingly similar to Obama’s — relying heavily on air power but rationing the use of U.S. military personnel on the ground. U.S. troops have functioned primarily as trainers and advisers. The brunt of fighting in Iraq has been borne by local forces. They include the elite, multi-sectarian, U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Service whose troops were involved in the recapture of Mosul, but also a Shia militia allied with Iran.
Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis believes that the U.S. should retain a military presence in Iraq. That makes sense for political as well as military reasons and could help in the continuing effort to urge Iraq’s leadership to govern in an inclusive way. (In Syria, the Trump administration long has made it clear that its priority is the defeat of Islamic State, rather than the early ouster of President Bashar Assad. On Wednesday the Washington Post reported that the administration had decided to end a troubled CIA training program for anti-Assad opposition groups.)
Sources: LA Times and Washington Times