The Days of Nation-Building Are Not Over

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

If you take Defense Secretary James Mattis at his word, the United States in coming years will be doing nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, once the ISIS and Taliban forces are defeated.

That was the repeated message Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford gave last week to House and Senate members of the Armed Services and Appropriations Committees during their testimony on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2018 budget.

Interestingly, no one raised a question about President Donald Trump’s repeated campaign statements that the days of U.S. nation-building were over. But there were many questions directed at where the money and personnel would come from to support nation-building, given the deep 30 percent cuts proposed by the Trump administration for the State Department and Agency for International Development (AID) in the fiscal 2018 budget.

In discussing Afghanistan last Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee, Mattis said, “I believe what we have to do is get to a point that the Afghan Security Forces, working for a government that can win the affection and respect of its people, can carry out…security so there are no havens for terrorists and that’s – that’s bottom line. Their law enforcement – we still [will] help them.”

When discussing Iraq, he told the Senators, “Once you get to the post-combat phase, you’ve got to go into reconciliation, and that will become a main effort this time. It will also include some forces left behind, most likely in a training role and mentoring role in Iraq, if we work that out with the government.”

Before the House Armed Services Committee on June 13, it was the same story. “It’s going to be a long fight, even in Iraq as we throw ISIS out. We are going to have to deal with the aftermath. I would tell you that we are working this by, with, and through allies,” Mattis said.

“I do not have the same control over the day-to-day activities of what is going to happen, for example, in west Mosul in the post combat phase,” Mattis said, “but I think that we are going to have to work with the government of Iraq in the – what I would call post combat pre-reconciliation phase.”

Mattis was focused on the lesson he learned from the Bush administration’s 2008 agreement to withdraw U.S. troops out of Iraq by 2011, and President Obama following through on that date when a new status of forces agreement for keeping U.S. troops could not be reached and polls showed the Iraqi parliament would not approve one.

“I believe that we pulled out our forces at a time, as you know, when the violence was lower,” Mattis told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, adding, “But we pulled them out on a timeline rather than consistent with the maturation of the government and the security forces.”

Understand that Mattis is using words and phrases such as “post combat,” “reconciliation,” and a government that can win the affection and respect of its people,” to describe times and outcomes that require continuing U.S. nation-building programs that bolster the economies, enhance government services as well as legal, judicial and local law enforcement systems in Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps even liberated sections of Syria.

Mattis pointed out that at a March anti-ISIS conference at the State Department, with representatives of 66 nations plus Interpol, the Arab League, NATO, and the European Union, “85 percent [of the time] was spent talking about the post combat and how do we make certain when we defeat them, how do we…keep the next group from rising.” Discussing combat took up only 15 percent of the time, he said.

Mattis made clear in his congressional presentations that for him, post combat—nation-building—requires a “whole of government effort.”

Asked at the June 12, House Armed Services Committee, by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) if “we have a strategy for the post ISIL Syria and Iraq how we ensure security and stability?” Mattis replied, “That is being put together,” adding, “Not a week goes by where he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson…aren’t personally sitting down together for hours…five, six, seven times a week as we try to make this a real tight team to address this sort of situation.”

That meant, Mattis said, “I informed him of the military factors, but this foreign policy of the United States had largely [to] be drawn up by…basically the State Department. And I believe he’s putting that together very, very well.”

Mattis said, “His diplomats are literally serving alongside us in Syria right now with – with our officers who are in that fight. So I am confident it’s being put together. It’s not complete yet.”

As for the proposed State Department reductions, Mattis said, “I don’t feel I’m –I’m knowledgeable enough to give you a detailed understanding of what those cuts are. I’d have to defer to the Secretary of State.”

Mattis did tell the House members that when the Trump budget was released, he and Tillerson met, recognizing they had to rethink what was available for their planned post combat nation-building. They looked at, Mattis said, “Where is the money that I have for development aid, what does he still anticipate receiving, and… how do we jointly figure out the priorities. So we’re working on it within a sense of teamwork, the spirit of collaboration between DOD and Department of State to try to get the best return on the money.”

Secretary Tillerson, in appearances before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations last week, added little but generalities to what Mattis said about the State Department’s post-combat activities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

It has already been reported that Mattis has been given authority to establish new, aggressive rules of engagement and troop levels in the areas of combat, something the Defense Secretary made clear to the legislators.

“The president delegated the authority to me to turn the [troop] numbers up and down as necessary, but this came at the end of…months of discussion with the president as we looked at what the strategy is,” he told the Senate Appropriations panel.

But that strategy for Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, he said, is still being worked on inter-agency, to be presented to Trump “probably within the next several weeks,” after which the president would make a final policy decision.

With Trump virtually silent on these matters, it’s clear that Mattis, with substantial military and political experience in the Middle East and Central Asia, will be lead player in setting the combat and post-combat American involvement in that part of the world.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Price for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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