By MARK LANDLER and MICHAEL R. GORDON JUNE 18, 2017
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — When President Trump made his first major decision on the war in Afghanistan, he did not announce it in a nationally televised address from the White House or a speech at West Point.
Instead, the Pentagon issued a news release late one afternoon last week confirming that the president had given the defense secretary, Jim Mattis, the authority to send several thousand additional troops to a war that, in its 16th year, engages about 8,800 American troops.
Mr. Trump, who writes avidly on Twitter about war and peace in other parts of the world, said nothing about the announcement. But its effect was unmistakable: He had outsourced the decision on how to proceed militarily in Afghanistan to the Pentagon, a startling break with how former President Barack Obama and many of his predecessors handled the anguished task of sending Americans into foreign conflicts.
The White House played down the Pentagon’s vaguely worded statement, which referred only to setting “troop levels” as a stopgap measure — a tacit admission of the administration’s internal conflicts over what to do about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
With a president who ran for office almost never having talked about the war, a coterie of political advisers who bitterly oppose deeper American engagement in it, and a national security team dominated by generals worried about the consequences if the United States does not act quickly, the decision could succeed in buying time for Mr. Trump and his advisers to fully deliberate over what to do in Afghanistan.
But former commanders and military scholars said that in sending troops before having a strategy, Mr. Trump has put the cart before the horse, eroded the tradition of civilian control over the military, and abdicated the president’s duty to announce and defend troop deployments.
“A commander in chief keeps control of limited wars by defining missions, selecting commanders and setting troop levels,” said Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who was a top commander and the American ambassador in Afghanistan. “To delegate any of these is dangerous.”
The decision to send additional troops represents at least a temporary victory for Mr. Mattis and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, over Mr. Trump’s aides, including his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who had warned that sending more troops was a slippery slope toward nation building, anathema to nationalists like him who reject both the interventionist neoconservatives of the George W. Bush administration and the limited war fought by Mr. Obama.
Those objections stymied the troop proposal several weeks ago. But officials said the White House was rattled by a huge truck bomb in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that killed more than 150, as well as by fears that military trends are running against the government of President Ashraf Ghani, an American-friendly former World Bank official, to the point that it might be in danger of collapse.
General McMaster — who served in Afghanistan as the head of an anti-corruption task force and is closely allied with Mr. Mattis, another former general with Afghanistan experience — argued passionately to Mr. Trump that the military effort had to be expanded without further delay, according to one official.
“What we are seeing now is that the president has acknowledged that the Afghan mission is important, and we ought to do it right,” said James Jay Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation who advised Mr. Trump’s presidential transition.
White House officials say they are still debating America’s role in Afghanistan — one senior adviser said they would consider issues as basic as whether the country needs a strong central government, rather than the warlords who have historically divided power there. In the meantime, the Pentagon is moving ahead with plans to send 3,000 to 5,000 troops to try to stabilize the country.
But it is not clear what Mr. Trump’s view of the strategy is, or even how involved he is in the debate. Officials said he did attend two National Security Council meetings last week — the first to discuss the troop issue, and the second to discuss the broader policy for South Asia.
Mr. Trump has said virtually nothing about Afghanistan since he was elected, or even since he started his campaign. But his views on the issue, based on Twitter posts when he was a private citizen, are uniformly hostile to America’s involvement in the war.
“It is time to get out of Afghanistan,” Mr. Trump wrote in 2012. “We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.”
Even Mr. Mattis has acknowledged that more troops will not be sufficient without a broader strategy, which the White House does not plan to complete before mid-July. Among the major questions are how to deal with the sanctuaries that the Taliban and other militants still have in neighboring Pakistan, how to fight Afghanistan’s endemic corruption, and how to encourage a political settlement with the Taliban.
“The 3,000 to 5,000 may prevent a near-term backsliding, but it is not going to be decisive in turning the tide of this war,” said Michèle A. Flournoy, the top Pentagon policy official during the Obama administration. “The administration needs to accompany any troop increase with a new political and economic strategy to help the Afghans achieve greater stability.”
Some experts noted that Mr. Trump’s hands-off approach on troop numbers was squarely in the Republican tradition of avoiding anything perceived as micromanaging the military, a criticism frequently leveled at Mr. Obama. But the Pentagon has assumed an even more outsize role in this administration, given a chaotic White House staff and an impulsive, preoccupied president.
“The president doesn’t have the time or interest to make these decisions, so they want to leave the decision-making to Mattis,” said Richard H. Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who advised General McMaster on his doctoral thesis. “They trust Mattis because he’s got the expertise and common sense.”
On Friday, the Pentagon said Mr. Mattis had not yet made a decision on the precise troop increase. Any decision will come only after the Pentagon consults with other government agencies, the Afghan government and NATO allies, a spokeswoman, Dana W. White, said in a statement, adding, “The secretary will continue to follow the president’s guidance on our overall strategy.”
In several days of congressional testimony last week, Mr. Mattis argued that sending more troops would have multiple benefits. Instead of limiting itself to advisers at high-level corps headquarters, the United States would have advisers accompany Afghan brigades in the field, where their mentoring of Afghan troops would be more effective, he said.
The advisers would also call in air and artillery, which would enable the United States to expand its firepower on behalf of Afghan forces. That would more closely resemble what American forces are doing in Iraq and Syria to fight the Islamic State.
“These are going to be people specifically designed, trained and organized and equipped to go in and advise them how you take the hill, get them the air support and artillery support and rocket support that will enable them,” Mr. Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee.
That suggested that in addition to advisers, the United States would be sending artillery and surface-to-surface rocket units, as well as more Special Operations forces.
The Obama administration initially limited the use of American air power against the Taliban, hoping to make the Afghan military less dependent on the United States. But since Afghanistan has no real air force, the move resulted in lost ground and soaring Afghan casualties, prompting Mr. Obama to modify the policy.
Because Mr. Obama pushed for a faster troop reduction than some of his commanders had wanted, the advisory effort has been limited. In February, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of the American-led force in Afghanistan, said he had a “shortfall of a few thousand” troops.
About 6,700 American troops are training and advising Afghan forces, including 400 who are outside the country and 2,100 who are involved in counterterrorism operations. (NATO and other nations have deployed another 6,500 troops for the training effort.)
“Three thousand to 5,000 additional advisers and trainers is essential,” John R. Allen, a retired general who served as the commander in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, said in an interview.
When he served as the commander in Afghanistan, General Allen envisioned a residual force of 13,600 Americans and 6,000 NATO and other foreign troops — a force level that would have allowed advisers to be placed at all of the Afghan Army corps headquarters, to accompany Afghan brigades on some operations, and to set up a national training center in Helmand Province.
The White House is calling its strategy a South Asia policy, to distinguish it from the Obama administration’s so-called Af-Pak policy. Officials said it would include diplomacy with Pakistan, India and even Iran, a nation that American diplomats cooperated with during the early months of the Afghan war but that the White House now sees as a bitter foe.
But the administration’s efforts to harness diplomacy may be handicapped by the depleted condition of the State Department. And that suggests to some that whatever strategy the Trump administration eventually arrives at will be dominated by the military.
“I am not against a troop increase,” said Daniel F. Feldman, who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under Mr. Obama. “But this appears to be tactics waiting for a strategy.”
Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed reporting.