As President Donald Trump struggles to find a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, The Cipher Brief’s Mackenzie Weinger spoke to two experts — retired Lieutenant General Guy Swan, and retired Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — to get their respective insights on the debates surrounding the long-delayed plan and what the president should be worrying about as he looks to approve a blueprint for the conflict the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has called a “stalemate.”
The Cipher Brief: How would you assess the current debate within the administration over what the Afghanistan strategy should be?
Admiral Sandy Winnefeld: Welcome to the NFL. Many similar debates were held within the Obama administration, so it is no surprise that there are strongly opposed factions in this administration. From what I understand, the president is starting by asking very important questions regarding the relevance of Afghanistan to U.S. national security interests. It is his job to do so, and it goes without saying that the greater the intersection of Afghanistan with those interests, the more we would be willing to commit — treasure, blood, opportunity cost — to protect them.
On the one hand, I believe the president senses that the military is committed to Afghanistan because it hates unfinished business and doesn’t want to walk away — and that the national security advisor and others are passionate counter-insurgency practitioners who are immersed in the problem.
That is no reason to be in Afghanistan. Moreover, he doesn’t want a half-hearted “not totally committed” campaign against an adversary that is committed to “total war.” He may also realize how corrupt the Afghan government is, that this lies at the root of the problem, and that as long as we prop up the government as-is, the corruption will continue. On the other hand, the U.S. has important interests at stake, not the least of which is prevention of another terrorist attack on the U.S. originating from the region – though there may be other ways to do this, as well as countering Chinese influence along the South Asian corridor.
Lieutenant General Guy Swan: This may be the most significant decision by the Trump administration in its first term. By that I mean, yes it’s frustrating that there’s this debate and tension, but you have to look at the gravity of what is being decided. We have spent over 15 years in Afghanistan and now we are looking at where this thing needs to go, and yes, North Korea, yes, China, yes Venezuela, yes, all these things are on the plate right now but none of those have American citizens in harm’s way, soldiers, Marines, and others, the way Afghanistan does. It’s the gravity of the decision. The point of that is: taking more time to get to a decision is not a bad thing.
TCB: There were reports this week that President Donald Trump has suggested firing General John Nicholson and has grown increasingly frustrated over not being presented with a “winning” strategy. Do you think that’s an appropriate focus?
Winnefeld: My strong sense is that this was a comment made by a frustrated president who is in the middle of a contentious strategy debate, and who does not suffer fools gladly. It was blowing off steam in private. Sadly, this was reported/leaked out by someone. The president should be more careful with even his private remarks in a White House that, like all other White Houses, is prone to leakage. I believe — hope — that someone has brought the president back to ground to the fact that John Nicholson is a superb and highly capable officer and leader who is trapped in a strategic vacuum.
Swan: I wouldn’t read too much into the proposed, if that’s the right term, firing of General Nicholson. Most of us know him, I know him very well, Secretary Mattis and Gen. Dunford know him and deal with him on an almost daily basis in that position, LTG McMaster and Gen. Kelly know him well. This is a seasoned officer.
It’s not about Nicholson, it is about the strategy. Remember, he is the executor of the strategy. Putting all this on his shoulders alone is wrong. This is a national decision about the direction we take, and Nicholson’s job is to execute.
TCB: What would be your recommendation to the administration regarding the strategy? How would you weigh in on the debate surrounding troop numbers, with some pushing for additional troops and others such as Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner pushing to use contractors?
Winnefeld: I believe there are enough U.S. interests at stake for there to be a relatively modest U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. I have seen too many young men and women either killed or returning home from that theater with severe wounds, and in my mind our level of interest does not extend that high — in other words, it is not necessary to lose a lot of people in order to protect our most important interests. Thus, I have to believe that our role should be indirect. That means robust close air support, training, and logistical support, but not direct action, except against legitimate targets that pose a threat to the United States. It also means we have to be in it for the long haul — we Americans like to have nice neat endings to conflict, but in today’s world that rarely, if ever, happens.
An important point: I would only continue this commitment if the Afghan government seriously commits to reform, fighting corruption, and resolving its internal squabbles and shows immediate and irreversible progress. As such, it is likely that the only way to get their attention is to actually show we are really ready to leave, and do it soon, if they don’t respond. Otherwise they will string us along. And if they decide their corruption and infighting is more important than our assistance, then we should pack up and leave. We cannot want this more than they do.
Swan: I’ve seen the discussion about contractors, and I don’t think that’s a suitable solution for this. There are roles for contractors. We’ve used them, frankly, since 1775, but they have not been a primary fighting force for us, they’ve largely been in support. To substitute them for coalition troops, whether U.S. or NATO troops, I don’t see that happening.
The first thing is, we have to understand whatever we do in Afghanistan is going to be a long-term commitment by the United States. The scale of that commitment, though, is another issue. I think the focus that the current commanders are putting on this right now is to strengthen the Security Forces in Afghanistan.
The second thing I would say is we don’t need complications in Afghanistan from Russia. Russia has been probing on the margins of Afghanistan. The Iranians have been probing for many years on the margins. And we have to have a counterweight to that and keep them out. That’s a diplomatic effort, that’s a military effort to some degree, but we need to keep those parties away from this while the Afghans figure out how they want to move forward.
Thirdly, Pakistan. Pakistan is a key element of any strategy going forward. The Pakistanis are not unlike the Chinese in the North Korea situation — they can help, they can hinder, but they’re going to be part of the landscape. I think continued engagement with Pakistan, as difficult as that is, is absolutely essential. And if we just walk away from this thing, that’s not going to help.
Lastly, I would say reconciliation. These things are diplomatic. They are for the host nation, i.e. Afghan government; some reconciliation effort with the Taliban will be necessary to find a way to move forward. If we keep the Russians, the Iranians away from that, keep these outsiders from complicating things, they might have a chance.
TCB: What do you worry that the administration is not considering as it pursues a new strategy?
Winnefeld: The administration probably underestimates the importance of our intelligence efforts in Afghanistan, and the duplicity of ISI. I also worry that they will not account for the nuances of Indo-Pak relations in the context of Afghanistan.
Swan: The one thing that I worry about is just unilateral withdrawal from this thing. I don’t think that will happen. We still have pretty good allied support from our NATO allies on this, and they, to their credit, have stuck with us as difficult as it is for them domestically. The only way this will get solved is with American leadership and to keep those allies on board. We’re the only ones that can really influence the Iranians, the Russians, and the Pakistanis. There’s no one else that can do this. And we do not want to see the country fall back into a haven for Al Qaeda or ISIS or others that could use it as a base to attack America or America’s interests.
I think the administration really has to figure out how it communicates with the American people. My view, as a professional military guy, a career guy, is the people will support if they understand what the objectives are. They’ll even sacrifice their sons and daughters. But they’ve got to know where it’s headed and what the objective is. And you have to be straight with them. It’s not going to be quick. Let’s face it — we still have troops in Germany, in Korea, in Japan. That’s three of the world’s leading democracies and economies – and there are still American soldiers there. Unfortunately, Americans want a quick fix and we’re just not going to be able to deliver that to them.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.