President Donald Trump faces a stark choice as his security advisers and military commanders push him to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan — a step that would escalate a conflict he spent years deriding and threaten to violate his “America First” campaign pledge.
It would also be a stark turnaround from Trump’s past criticisms of the conflict’s casualty toll and enormous expense, including his 2013 complaint on Twitter that the Afghan regime “has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!”
Now the top brass is readying a proposal to send as many as 5,000 additional troops to help beat back the resurgent Taliban in a country where the U.S. is still waging its longest war. Trump will be presented the military options in the coming days, according to several administration officials.
Trump has said little about Afghanistan since taking office, aside from hailing the military’s decision to drop one of its largest non-nuclear bombs on an Islamic State cave network there last month.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Trump wants to hear from his generals on what their overall strategy is — not just how many troops they need.
"One of the things he has asked his national security team to do is to actually think — rethink the strategy," Spicer told reporters. "What are we doing to achieve the goals you are asking about? How do we actually, how do we win, how do we eliminate the threat?"
National security adviser H.R. McMaster and most of Trump’s top military advisers — including the top commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John Nicholson — are advocating the military surge to aid Afghan security forces, which have suffered thousands of casualties since taking the lead in the fight over three years ago. The hope is that a more aggressive U.S. posture, and additional military advisers embedded with Afghan forces, will compel the Taliban back to the negotiating table to resolve the country’s political divides.
Trump has already shown an increasing willingness to deploy military force, as in the missile strike he ordered against the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons. But sending thousands more troops into harm’s way would be an even graver step into the kinds of foreign entanglements he criticized as a private citizen.
In past years, he expressed special derision for the United States’ post-Sept. 11 presence in Afghanistan.
"We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan," Trump wrote in the 2013 tweet, just one of many such broadsides. In an earlier interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, Trump insisted that "money should be spent in our country, we should rebuild our country. … Let’s get with it, get out of Afghanistan.”
Since 2001, when the U.S.-led military coalition invaded and toppled the Taliban from power, 2,396 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. By some estimates, the conflict has also cost U.S. taxpayers more than $1 trillion.
In its most recent report on the progress there, the Pentagon concluded that the Taliban "had control or influence over approximately 10 percent of the population and was contesting the Afghan Government for control of at least another 20 percent."
Against that backdrop, Trump faces his first major decision involving large numbers of U.S. troops — one that echoes those put to his predecessors.
The broad outlines of the surge plan are drawing praise from Republican lawmakers who long expressed frustration with what they considered former President Barack Obama’s directionless approach to the Afghan conflict.
“President Obama’s failure to set a policy or a strategy in Afghanistan squandered many of our hard-fought gains there, and it’s been clear for a while we haven’t had the forces on the ground to accomplish our mission," said Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a leading Republican hawk and Iraq war veteran. "A troop increase will help stop the Islamic State from growing its footprint in Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban from once again establishing safe havens for terrorists."
At the center of the debate is McMaster, a three-star Army general who is one of the intellectual architects of the counterinsurgency strategy employed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He is a leading practitioner of counterinsurgency strategy, a troop-heavy approach that focuses on providing security for the population as much as on killing the enemy.
He applied it in Iraq, where he served from 2004 to 2006. McMaster’s service with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar, where he and his team cleared the onetime Al Qaeda stronghold of insurgents, has become a case study for students of counterinsurgency warfare. He has approached the situation in Afghanistan through the same framework, say those who have worked with him.
"Our position in Afghanistan has been deteriorating for some time and, in a sense, what McMaster is doing — because nobody knows counterinsurgency better than he does — is to undo the damage that Obama’s micromanagement of the Pentagon did to our prospects in Afghanistan," said Eric Edelman, who served as defense undersecretary for policy in the George W. Bush administration.
When McMaster returned from Iraq, he helped Gen. David Petraeus revolutionize the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine, which was put to the test during the Iraqi surge in late 2007.
McMaster’s views were also deeply informed by his doctoral studies at the University of North Carolina, which focused on how and why the Vietnam War went awry. His answer, set forth in a bestselling book about the war: Military officers, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had "failed to confront the president with their objections" to a strategy they had reason to believe would fail.
Following reports that he has clashed with the president in recent weeks on a number of policy issues, it’s clear that, to the extent his plan for Afghanistan runs counter to some of Trump’s campaign promises or deeply held beliefs, McMaster considers it a part of the job.
"Part of it is his style, but part of it is, the guy keeps telling him things he doesn’t want to hear," said a former Bush administration official.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also supports a military surge, several officials said. “We’re up against a determined enemy,” Mattis said Monday in Copenhagen.
The United States has 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Even with an additional 5,000, the U.S. military presence will pale in comparison to the nearly 100,000 American troops deployed there in 2010 and 2011.
It would also be just a fraction of the 30,000 additional troops that Obama authorized soon after he took office in 2009 in his own version of an Afghan surge.
Indeed, retied Army Col. Joseph Collin, a Pentagon strategist, calls the proposed Trump troop increase a "mini-surge," one that would not mark a dramatic change in the current strategy of advising and training the Afghans and supporting operations with special forces and air power.
But were the president to sign off on a plan that would mark a departure from his campaign rhetoric, it would be, in the words of one former Bush national security aide, "a big deal."
The president was initially briefed on the situation in Afghanistan on his first visit to U.S. Central Command in Tampa in early February, just weeks after taking office.
What he heard was inconsistent with his desire to reallocate American resources from the Middle East and focus attention on domestic priorities. "He heard the truth: We cannot let Afghanistan and Iraq totally implode. We can’t walk away from them. As a matter of fact, we’re going to have to put more resources in," said the former Bush aide, who has direct knowledge of the meeting. "What he wants to do is get out, but McMaster and Mattis are giving him the military view, which is, ‘You can’t get out, you have to do more.’"
But hardcore Trump supporters wary of international military commitments are not the only ones hoping he will stick to his stay-out-of-it promises.
"It’s the definition of insanity," said Stephen Miles, director of Win Without War, which advocates a less muscular foreign policy that relies heavily on diplomacy. "Sixteen years on, there’s nothing a few thousand more troops will do to tip the scales of a war that has no battlefield solution. Afghanistan’s problems — endemic corruption, a non-representative political system, and nearly four decades of endless war — will not be solved with American bombs or boots on the ground."
Yet Trump, who seems to relish a challenge, is also feeling pressure from more than just his military advisers. The Taliban itself has been baiting him.
In an open letter days after inauguration, the Taliban advised Trump to pull all U.S. forces out of the country, saying that “nothing has been achieved in 15 years of war except bloodshed and destruction.”
In words that echoed some of Trump’s own past rhetoric, it went on to say that the U.S. “had lost credibility after spending a trillion dollars on a fruitless entanglement.” The militant group added that the responsibility to end the war “rests on your shoulders.”