With the anti-neocon Steve Bannon out, and nobody left in Trump's inner circle to halt the simmering push for war in Aghanistan, North Korea, the Middle East and virtually everywhere else courtesy of Generals Kelly and McMaster, this morning Reuters reported, quoting Defense Secretary Mattis that Trump has a made a decision on the United States' strategy for Afghanistan after a "sufficiently rigorous" review process.
However, Mattis did not provide details on when the White House would make an announcement or what the decision was on Afghanistan, where fighting still rages more than 15 years after U.S. forces invaded and overthrew a Taliban government. The Defense Secretary said he is satisfied with how the administration formulated its new Afghanistan war strategy. But he refused to talk about the new policy until it was disclosed by Trump.
"I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous and did not go in with a pre-set position," Mattis told reporters traveling with him aboard a military aircraft to Jordan. "The president has made a decision. As he said, he wants to be the one to announce it to the American people."
As reported earlier in the year, soon after taking office in January the Trump administration began a review of U.S. policy on Afghanistan, which has expanded into a broader South Asia review. After Trump met with his national security aides on Friday to review an array of options for Afghan strategy, the White House said no decision had been made on whether he would commit more troops to America's longest war. However, Trump tweeted on Saturday: "many decisions made, including on Afghanistan".
U.S. officials have told Reuters that the president was expected to be briefed on options ranging from a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to a modest increase. Out bet is on the latter, and scrap the "modest" part: after all, if there was ever a time Trump need a "war diversion" it is now.
Luckily, we won't have long to wait: according to a statement issued moments ago by the White House, "Trump will address our Nation's troops and the American people tomorrow night at 9:00 pm (EDT) from Fort Meyer in Arlington, VA, to provide an update on the path forward for America's engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia."
Meanwhile, signaling that the U.S. military expects its mission to continue, Bloomberg reports that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Sunday hailed the launch of the Afghan Army's new special operations corps, declaring that "we are with you and we will stay with you."
Gen. John Nicholson's exhortation of continued support for the Afghans suggested the Pentagon may have won its argument that America's military must stay engaged in the conflict in order to insure terrorists don't once again threaten the U.S. from safe havens in Afghanistan.
Nicholson, speaking prior to the White House announcement, said the commandos and a plan to double the size of the Afghan's special operations forces are critical to winning the war. "I assure you we are with you in this fight. We are with you and we will stay with you," he said during a ceremony at Camp Morehead, a training base for Afghan commandos southeast of Kabul.
Furthermore, as Bloomberg notes, the Pentagon was awaiting a final announcement by Trump on a proposal to send nearly 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. The added forces would increase training and advising of the Afghan forces and bolster counterterrorism operations against the Taliban and an Islamic State group affiliate trying to gain a foothold in the country.
According to a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul, increasing the number of American troops would allow the military to quickly send additional advisers or airstrike support to two simultaneous operations. Right now, the official said, they can only do so for one. The officer said it would allow the U.S. to send fighter aircraft, refueling aircraft and surveillance aircraft to multiple locations for missions.
The officer was not authorized to discuss the details publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity. Afghan military commanders have been clear that they want and expect continued U.S. military help.
Pulling out American forces "would be a total failure," Col. Abdul Mahfuz, the Afghan intelligence agency chief for Qarahbagh, north of Kabul, said Saturday. And he said that substituting paid contractors for U.S. troops would be a formula for continuing the war, rather than completing it.
As such, anyone harboring any hope that with two generals whispering strategy in Trump's ear, and with anti-interventionist Bannon out of the picture, that Trump will announce an accelerated withdrawal of US troops from the war-battered country, should probably not hold their breath. Meanwhile, keep a close eye on Mattis, Kelly and McMaster: once Trump announces the inevitable boost in military activity in Afghanistan first (and soon, everywhere else), it will be the three generals who - together with Goldman Sachs when it comes to domestic policy - are now officially in control of the U.S. executive branch.