Recently we learned that Erik Prince, founder of the security firm Blackwater Worldwide, and Steve Feinberg, financier, and owner of DynCorp International, a leading military logistics, and training contractor, approached the Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, with their plan to use contractors instead of American troops to stabilize Afghanistan. The meeting was arranged at the behest of President Trump’s advisors who want to ensure their boss is apprised of the full range of options in Afghanistan.
The Secretary decided to stick with an in-house solution, that is to say, more of the same, for a war we are, in his words, “not winning.” Secretary Mattis is no enemy of contractors, but hopefully, he reflected on what Messrs. Prince and Feinberg said before he briefed President Trump last week on the way ahead in Afghanistan.
Let’s review our progress in Afghanistan:
- Provinces under central government control: according to data from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “the Afghan government controls or influences just 52 percent of the nation’s districts today [February 2017] compared to 72 percent in November 2015.”
- Opium production increased 43% from 2015 to 2016 and has been on an upward trend since 2001.
- U.S. casualties: 2385 dead and 20,290 wounded military; 1691 dead contractors.
- Money spent: over $700 billion, though some analysts say the true cost is in the trillions.
I previously said we should let the Afghans and the neighbors – Iran, Pakistan, and China – try to sort it out, and minimize our work with Afghanistan to counternarcotics and intelligence sharing while we work with the Central Asian states to secure their borders. During the campaign, candidate Trump described the war in Afghanistan as “a complete waste” and has focused his efforts since inauguration on everything else, leaving the policy review to the national security advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, which brings us to the problem…
General McMaster spent several months trying to convince the President to commit more troops and agree to a four-year timeline in advance of May’s NATO summit meeting; he was blocked by the secretaries of Defense and State. McMaster then made a second try at last week’s National Security Council Principals Committee, only to get pushback from Trump. Seen in that light, the suggestion that the White House would consider the Prince-Feinberg plan was a billboard-sized hint that the President does not want a more-of-the-same solution.
There is no Afghanistan “policy vacuum,” General McMaster has simply forgotten that it is his job to get in sync with the President, not the other way around. His thinking is emblematic of the military’s approach to sunk costs – the dead and wounded soldiers – as opposed to a businessman’s. The military may be reluctant to abandon a political objective if it feels doing so will dishonor the sacrifice of the soldiers who died and were wounded trying to achieve the objective. It is an understandable sentiment, but illogical to someone with a business background asking for a solution to a $700 billion campaign almost two decades old and with no end in sight.
President Trump understandably wants to see if his administration can stabilize Afghanistan, so using contractors may give him the option to try something new while reducing military casualties that grab the headlines. (He is no doubt aware that the parts of the country that provide most of the military’s troops are part of his electoral base.)
If President Trump approves a McMaster plan that Mattis is comfortable with, as Defense will have to be on board, he should give them twelve months – not four years - to show real progress – not PowerPoint progress - defined as more provinces under central government control, and a sharp reduction in opium cultivation. Metrics such as the number of Afghan police and soldiers trained are merely inputs, not the only output that counts: the provision of public safety in Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces.
The U.S. has been militarily and diplomatically engaged in Afghanistan for 16 years so cries for “more time” ring hollow. Messrs. McMaster and Mattis are not new to Afghanistan so they can start implementing their good ideas immediately.
Most importantly, a twelve-month deadline will give the President the option to fire McMaster or Mattis before the November 2018 elections if the “M&M” plan fails to show progress. The President needs to heed President Bush’s mistake of not firing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before the 2006 election, which contributed to the Democrats gaining 31 seats in the House of Representative and 6 seats in the Senate, giving the Democrats control of both chambers, until the GOP took back the House in 2011 and the Senate in 2015.
And to any caviling about domestic concerns affecting our foreign policy, I say, “Darn right. Why shouldn’t they?” Foreign and defense policy should not be a consequence-free zone for the staff practitioners, who have to answer to elected officials who take seriously their obligation to keep their promises to the voters.