You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Leave It to the Generals

A nonstrategy for Afghanistan.

Illustration by Bill Butcher

Win or quit, or win and then quit. When Donald Trump was a candidate for president last year, this pretty much represented his strategic menu of options for the country’s ongoing wars. Whichever way things went, they were going to change, though, and for the better. No more putzing around ineffectually with no end in sight.

Backing up these promises were assertions of rare expertise in the management of wars. “There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am,” Trump told Fox News in 2015. Senior military officers, with all their medals and campaign ribbons, left him singularly unimpressed. “I know more about offense and defense than they will ever understand, believe me.” And while the sudden emergence of the Islamic State had caught the Pentagon flat-footed, Trump was nonchalant. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”

How much of this even Trump himself believed is difficult to say. We do know this, however: Since becoming president, he has largely ceded decision-making on the conduct of America’s wars to the very generals he derided while running for office. Trump has not entirely vacated the office of commander-in-chief. Yet, as with so many other aspects of the job, he occupies it on only an occasional basis and rarely with the requisite skill.

Within the armed forces, and among members of the media with a hawkish bent, the beef against Barack Obama as war president was that he micromanaged our military campaigns, denying warriors the latitude and flexibility they needed to get things done. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates compared Obama to LBJ, an unrivaled military meddler. He believed that, like Johnson, Obama had intruded into military matters that were beyond his purview, with results that were far from helpful. No one will make a similar charge against President Trump. Not since 1861, when Abraham Lincoln entrusted the conduct of the Civil War to George McClellan, the ineffectual leader known as “Little Napoleon,” has the balance of civil-military authority tilted so greatly in favor of the generals.

When the notoriously risk-averse McClellan proved hesitant about actually committing his army to battle, a caustic Lincoln asked if he might “borrow it for a while,” hinting at the greater presidential assertiveness to come. Barely conversant with history, military or otherwise, Trump himself shows none of Lincoln’s ability to learn and to grow in office. His implicit charge to our own would-be Napoleons reduces to this: Don’t bother me; just get on with it. Trump may preside over America’s ongoing wars. He leaves to others the actual direction of those wars.

We are now beginning to get an inkling of what that implies. Contrary to what he promised on the stump, the seemingly endless wars that Trump inherited appear likely to continue endlessly. This is due in large measure to the fact that the generals to whom he defers show no evidence of being able to transcend the limits of their own experience.

James Mattis, the general who fills the post of defense secretary; John Kelly, the general who is White House chief of staff; and H.R. McMaster, already the second general to serve Trump as national security advisor, are patriotic, seasoned, and not without intelligence. Yet they are military men, shaped by their decades of experience in uniform. They are, almost by definition, devoid of critical imagination.

In a famous study of civil-military relations, published a half-century ago, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington suggested that “modern man may well find his monastery in the Army.” That prediction still awaits fulfillment, to put it mildly. Yet Huntington’s comparison of the military profession with monastic life was apt. Both environments are all-encompassing, rooted in expectations of compliance and subordination. Prolonged immersion in either imparts to the individual precisely what Trump himself lacks: an interpretation of history and a set of fixed principles—in short, a worldview.

Take the monk out of the monastic community where he has lived for 30 years or so and he remains a monk. Take soldiers out of the military milieu that they have inhabited for 30 years or so and they remain soldiers. There may be exceptions: In the monastic sphere the Trappist Thomas Merton transcended his background, as did soldier-statesmen such as George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower. We revere these figures, if for nothing else, because they were able to surmount the confines of their original calling.

Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster, along with General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and various field commanders, have yet to show any such capacity. Since Trump put them in, the principal theme of U.S. operations targeting ISIS, the Taliban, and other militant groups has been simply: more of the same, but not too much more. The overarching, if unacknowledged, premise of the nation’s military efforts remains what it has been ever since George W. Bush’s grandiose, post–September 11 dream of transforming the Islamic world collapsed: If we keep killing “terrorists” in sufficient numbers, the jihadist threat will eventually subside.

Every couple of years, the Pentagon markets some new initiative intended to show that it is engaged in something other than a crude war of attrition. The Trump administration’s recently declared new approach to waging the stalemated war in Afghanistan offers a case in point. In August, after months of internal deliberations, the Trump administration announced that it was bumping up the number of troops in Afghanistan to 11,000, an increase of roughly 3,000. In October, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary Mattis detailed the administration’s vision–in reality, the generals’ vision—for the next phase of America’s longest-ever armed conflict. Heralding Mattis’s revised approach is a new set of alliterative buzzwords: “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile, and sustain.” Put them together and you end up with R4+S. This might work to describe the model of a new pickup truck. But it’s not a strategy.

R4+S doesn’t improve by explanation. In his Senate testimony, Mattis gamely tried to make the case that R4+S is something other than the typical Pentagon flimflam. To “regionalize,” he said, is to adopt “a geographic framework with a holistic, comprehensive view.” This means recognizing that Afghanistan’s neighbors have a stake in that country’s future and should therefore not be treated as “external variables late in our strategic design”—a valid but hardly novel point, reminiscent of the way the Obama administration coined the term AfPak to show that it, too, was thinking beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

To “realign” is to increase the number of U.S. and allied advisers accompanying Afghan tactical units and to increase the availability of NATO (meaning primarily American) air power in support of Afghan ground troops. “Reinforce” refers to modest increases in the overall allied commitment, not only from the United States but also from what the defense secretary said were 15 other (unnamed) nations who have made (unspecified) promises to do more. With equal vagueness, Mattis added that “we are now looking to our partners to provide even more troop and financial support.” “Reconcile,” Mattis said, means “convincing our foes that the coalition is committed to a conditions-based outcome.” Afghan security forces backed by allied bombing, he predicted, will “drive fence-sitters and those who will see that we’re not quitting” to cut a deal with the government in Kabul. As for “sustain,” that means keeping at it no matter how long it takes. “Our South Asia strategy reinforces to the Taliban that the only path to peace and political legitimacy is through a negotiated settlement.” Overall, R4+S “will make the Afghan army bolder, and it will give them more opportunities militarily to take the fight to the enemy,” Mattis emphasized. “And that would be the way, as we take the fight to the enemy, we convince the Taliban, ‘You’re not going to win this by killing.’”

I am probably not alone in recalling another secretary of defense making a similar “path to peace” argument with regard to another ill-fated war, just 50 years ago. Robert McNamara and others in the Johnson administration just could not grasp the stubborn refusal of the North Vietnamese to recognize the logic of admitting defeat.

Of course, the Afghanistan War and the Vietnam War differ in myriad ways. Yet they resemble one another in one crucial respect. Victory for “our side” depended then on two factors that even today the United States struggles in vain to confer: political legitimacy and military motivation.

The Republic of Vietnam that Americans labored so long to create never commanded sufficient loyalty among the South Vietnamese people to sustain an army of soldiers willing to fight and die to ensure that nation’s survival. The new Afghanistan that Americans have labored to create over the past 16 years faces the same predicament.

R4+S ignores that predicament entirely. Trump’s generals have not devised a strategy to end a war, but an excuse for ensuring its further perpetuation. It’s quite likely that they are incapable of conceiving anything better. This much is certain: With the commander-in-chief more or less AWOL, he won’t be offering to bail them out. After all, it’s their war, not his.