Since taking office, U.S. President Donald Trump has shown an affinity, and perhaps even a deference, to the generals he has surrounded himself with in his Cabinet and at the White House, save one exception: the war in Afghanistan.
More than a dozen interviews with current and former U.S. officials familiar with the discussions reveal a president deeply frustrated with the lack of options to win the 16-year-old war, described internally as “an eroding stalemate.”
The debate carries echoes of the same dilemma Barack Obama faced in 2009. Then, as now, odds are that Trump will ultimately send more troops, current and former officials say, reports Reuters.
“It’s the least worst option,” one former U.S. official familiar with the discussions said, speaking on condition of anonymity, while acknowledging that with Trump, a pullout cannot be completely ruled out.
Trump’s defense secretary, retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, has had the authority for nearly two months to add thousands more troops to the roughly 8,400 there now (down from a peak of more than 100,000 in 2011). Army General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, requested the troops back in February.
But officials say Mattis won’t use his authority until he has buy-in from Trump for a strategic vision for America’s longest war. Beyond more troops for Afghanistan, the strategy would aim to address militant safe havens across the border in Pakistan.
That too has become a divisive issue, with several members of Trump’s inner circle split on how hard to press Islamabad.
Sources say that the discussions – which included a high-level White House meeting on Thursday – could drag out for the rest of the summer, blowing past a mid-July deadline to present a war strategy to an increasingly impatient Congress.
After Thursday’s meeting, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, people familiar with the deliberations told Reuters that a final decision did not appear imminent.
Pentagon officials have declined to comment on internal deliberations. The White House has also declined to comment ahead of a decision on the strategy.
Divisions have also emerged within Trump’s administration on how much to pressure Pakistan, and how quickly, in order to address militant safe havens blamed for helping prolong Afghanistan’s war.
Nicholson, McMaster and Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, favor taking a strong hand with Pakistan to deal with Taliban militants using that country as a base from which to plot attacks in Afghanistan, current and former officials say.
On the other side are State Department officials and others at the Pentagon, including Dunford, who take a broader view of Pakistan’s strategic importance and are less convinced that harsh actions will secure more cooperation from Islamabad, they said.
Pakistan fiercely denies allowing any militant safe havens on its territory.
The Trump administration is exploring a new approach toward Pakistan, Reuters has reported. Potential responses under discussion include expanding U.S. drone strikes, redirecting aid to Pakistan and perhaps eventually downgrading Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.