The goal, the plan, what’s different and how it all ends
What is the goal? Unlike in Iraq and Syria, where the objective is total annihilation of the Islamic State, the goal in Afghanistan is to convince the Taliban they can’t win, and drive them to peace talks with the Afghan government. It is, in Mattis’ words, a test of wills and breaking the will of the Taliban requires creating the conditions that persuade the enemy that continued fighting is futile. “We intend to drive fence-sitters and those who will see that we’re not quitting this fight, to reconcile with the Afghan national government,” Mattis said.
What is the plan? Mattis and Dunford looked at the performance of the Afghan military and determined that special forces units and other troops with embedded U.S. advisers usually won, while conventional Afghan troops often lost. So a key aspect of the plan is to put U.S. or NATO advisers with all the Afghan forces on the front lines. That means sending another 3,000 or so U.S. troops, and several thousand more from other NATO countries. Those troops will accompany the Afghan forces into the field, and — this is a critical change — they will be authorized to call in U.S. and coalition airstrikes to support the ground operations. “Make no mistake, this is combat duty, but the Afghan forces remain in the lead to do the fighting,” Mattis said.
How is it different? Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. was operating under the pretense that combat operations with the Taliban ended in 2014, and U.S. offensive strikes were limited to cases of self-defense, or when the Taliban were close enough to present a direct threat. Afghan forces were left on their own, with no air cover to battle the Taliban, often taking heavy casualties. Now Mattis has taken the gloves off. There are no restrictions on airpower, and no requirement for “proximity” to provide close air support. “We did not give the young Afghan boys the sense that they had the high ground when they were fighting against this enemy, that the NATO air support could have given them,” Mattis said. “Today, I can bring that air support to them.”
The other big change: There is no timetable for victory, no announced withdrawal date, so the Taliban cannot just wait out the U.S. “There was always a sense that the United States was going to pull out in 12 months,” Dunford told the Senate panel. “And the Taliban, frankly, fed that message to their fighters, and that’s how they motivated their people year after year, was, ‘One more year in a fight, and then we’re going to defeat the coalition. They are going to leave Afghanistan.’ ”
How many troops are we talking about? The additional 3,000 or so U.S. troops will bring the U.S. troop number to 14,000, along with 6,800 NATO and coalition troops and 320,000 Afghan National Security Forces. NATO countries have also promised to send several thousand additional forces, once they are briefed on the new strategy. Mattis has promised to provide transparency on the overall troop levels, but says he won’t disclose troop movements in or out of the country that could aid the enemy. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand asked if he would “be honest with the American people about the numbers of troops you are sending over.”
“No, ma’am, if it involves telling the enemy something that will help them,” Mattis replied. “Yes ma’am — yes, senator, in any terms of honesty with this committee in private, at any time, in closed hearing.” Mattis said he would provide “approximate” troop levels to the American people. “We will tell them we are adding the troops. We’ll give approximate numbers. We’re not hiding this.”
What will victory look like? “What it means is that the Taliban decide to stop killing fellow countrymen and women and sit down, as some of the small groups have, and start working with the Afghan government,” Mattis said. “Some of them will peel off early. Some will fight to the rugged end. But the bottom line is we will fight and talk at the same time.” Mattis said this is not a war that will be won by vanquishing the enemy. “The bottom line is we are going to go after al Qaeda. We’re going to go after ISIS. And if the Taliban wants to break with them and stop killing people and rejoin the political process, then we see reconciliation as the way we will end this war.”
Does this strategy have a name? Nothing as catchy as “The Surge,” which was the name for the 2007 adjustment in Iraq that was credited with turning the tide of battle. This plan has been dubbed “R4+S” by Mattis, who explained it stands for regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconciliation and sustain.
How long will it take? Years. The first real indication of whether the new strategy is producing the desired results will come with the next “fighting season,” when the weather turns warm in Afghanistan. “Next summer’s performance by the Afghan force will be one indicator,” Dunford said. “There’s also a very important event taking place in Afghanistan next year, which is the elections. You know, I think the — we’ll see the Afghan’s ability to perform the security function associated with the elections as being a very good indicator as well.”
What about Pakistan? Trump has said he will put more pressure on Pakistan, which has allowed a safe haven for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters along the its largely ungoverned border region. Mattis said there will be a united front in confronting Pakistan with spelled out expectations for changing its behavior. “What you’re going to see is 39 nations all in the NATO campaign working together to lay out what it is we need Pakistan to do,” Mattis said, “and then we’re going to use a whole government international effort to align the, basically, the benefits and the penalties if those things are not done.”
Does this mean the U.S. will be in Afghanistan forever? In both hearings some lawmakers lamented that after 16 years there seems to be no end in sight to the Afghan war. “The Trump administration’s plan to force the Taliban to the negotiating table is to say, ‘We are willing to continue to fight the Afghan war forever.’ And that just can’t be right. It can’t,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Dunford said people who are frustrated with the lack of victory over 16 years are using the wrong time frame. The Afghans have been fighting essentially on their own for just over two years. Dunford said the new plan is designed to be “fiscally, militarily and politically sustainable” over time. “It will require a U.S. presence increase in the short term, but in the long term this is about leveraging the 300,000 Afghan forces that we have grown over the course of 16 years, but just inadequately supported for here over the last two.”
Will the U.S. still be in Afghanistan 10 years from now? “Certainly, we may have advisers there 10 years from now,” Mattis said. “but the Taliban will not be the enemy they are.”
Good Wednesday morning and welcome to Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense, compiled by Washington Examiner National Security Senior Writer Jamie McIntyre (@jamiejmcintyre), National Security Writer Travis J. Tritten (@travis_tritten) and Senior Editor David Brown (@dave_brown24). Email us here for tips, suggestions, calendar items and anything else. If a friend sent this to you and you’d like to sign up, click here. If signing up doesn’t work, shoot us an email and we’ll add you to our list. And be sure to follow us on Twitter @dailyondefense.
HAPPENING TODAY: Trump leaves Washington first thing this morning for Las Vegas to meet with friends and family of those were were killed in Sunday’s mass shooting, along with some of the wounded and the first responders.
NO BREAK WITH TRUMP: In his Senate testimony, Mattis said he does not see any “divergence” between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s effort to negotiate with North Korea and Trump’s comment Sunday that talking with the regime is a waste of time. Mattis said the U.S. is looking for opportunities to start a dialogue with the North over its nuclear missile program, but currently is not talking due to the president’s wishes.
“All we are doing is probing, we are not talking, consistent with the president’s dismay about not talking with them before the time is right, before they are willing to talk,” Mattis told the Armed Services Committee. “So, I do not see the divergence as strongly as some have interpreted it.”
Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the committee, asked Mattis about North Korea in what was the first question in a hearing that was called to focus on the administration’s Afghanistan strategy. “On one hand you strongly support him and on the other hand … the president is telling him to knock it off,” Reed said.
MATTIS BACKS IRAN DEAL: Mattis also said it is in the U.S. national security interest to remain in the Iran nuclear deal despite Trump’s criticism that the agreement is an “embarrassment.” Mattis said he supports what he called a “rigorous review” by Trump, but that he would advise keeping the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was signed by the Obama administration to keep Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, the Trump administration must re-certify the deal to Congress by Oct. 15. Not certifying the deal doesn’t mean the U.S. is walking away from it, but it does open the possibility that Congress could reimpose sanctions that were lifted as part of the deal. “If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then clearly we should stay with it,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I believe at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the president should consider staying with.”
Asked directly by Sen. Angus King, whether it’s in the country’s national security interest to remain in the deal, Mattis said “yes,” but only after a pregnant pause. He also told senators that Trump may be looking at a broader definition of security. “The president has to consider more broadly things that rightly fall under his portfolio of looking out for the American people in areas that go beyond the specific letters of the JCPOA,” Mattis said. “In that regard, I support the rigorous review that he has got going on right now.”
THE FATAL FLAW: While many believe the Iran agreement is flawed because it does not cover Iran’s missile program, and also contains sunset provisions that will allow Tehran to simply wait 10 years before moving ahead with its nuclear program, a new analysis says the real problem is the lack of intrusive inspections. “This is because the inspection procedure takes place only at sites where Iran has agreed to allow inspection, that is, sites Iran itself has declared as nuclear sites, but not at any other sites in Iran, including military sites,” concludes a report by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
“Carrying out inspections in the other sites can take place only after political negotiations in the Joint Commission of the JCPOA — which comprises the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the IAEA, and Iran — and only after some 30 days have passed from the time of the submission of the intelligence information that prompted the request for inspection, and only after the sources of this intelligence have been fully revealed to Iran, Russia, and China.” Under these conditions, the report says “there is no possibility of real and effective inspection of Iran’s nuclear activity.”
MATTIS ON PUERTO RICO: Mattis says about 10,000 troops are now on the ground in Puerto Rico and insisted there was no delay in the Pentagon meeting requests for aid, despite criticisms that the administration has been slow to deploy forces to the island. “I assure you this is all hands on deck. There is no delay, when a request comes in it is approved the moment it hits the Pentagon,” Mattis said in his Senate testimony.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he recently met with Defense Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and found the military was still not doing enough, a refrain from Democrats on Capitol Hill. “What impressed me is, very bluntly, was the need for additional troops and resources there from the Department of Defense in order to fill the gap and the disconnect between the supplies that are in the ports and airports and the people,” said Blumenthal, who is a committee member.
Mattis told Blumenthal that the department has pulled out all the stops to help U.S. citizens on the island. “There is no lack of resources, sir, we are ready to go even to the point that it is going to impact the deployments perhaps of some of these troops overseas next year because we have interrupted the preparation. That is OK, when it is helping fellow Americans,” Mattis said.
CUBAN DIPLOMATS EXPELLED: The State Department announced yesterday that 15 Cuban diplomats must leave the United States within seven days over the mysterious attacks against American personnel in Havana. “The decision was made due to Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention,” Tillerson said in a Tuesday morning statement.
A senior U.S. diplomat informed the Cuban government of the expulsions Tuesday morning, which come just days after the Trump administration withdrew most U.S. government personnel from Cuba. The decision coincided with the announcement that the number of Americans harmed by the attacks, which have caused hearing loss and other “cognitive issues” over the past year, has risen to 22.
THE INVISIBLE F-35: Things took an odd turn yesterday during Trump’s visit to Puerto Rico. In the middle of a briefing at Luis Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Trump, apparently confusing radar-evading stealth technology with a Klingon cloaking device, shifted from discussing relief efforts to the F-35 as a modern technological marvel that is “literally,” invisible. “You can’t see it, literally, you can’t see it,” Trump gushed to an airman. The Air Force representative was explaining that four runways were open at the base, and that more than 700 sorties had been competed to bring in supplies. “Amazing job. Amazing job,” Trump said, “So amazing that we’re ordering hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35.”
Trump again took credit for price reductions in the next batch of F-35s, which he once maligned as overpriced. “As you probably heard, we cut the price very substantially, something that other administrations would never have done. That I can tell you.” The president’s insistence that he personally drove down the sticker price of the pricy fifth generation plane has always been somewhat of a mystery, considering the price reductions were in the works before he took office.
THIS COULD EXPLAIN A LOT: But a New York Times investigative reporter had an interesting story, that if true would explain it. In an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air” last week, Nicholas Confessore told host Terry Gross that Lockheed Martin’s CEO Marillyn Hewson cut a backroom deal to get Trump to stop bashing the plane on Twitter, which was causing the company’s stock to fall.
Here’s what Confessore said: “A newly-minted K Street lobbyist, or at least a newly-minted partner in a lobbying firm since he doesn’t register as a lobbyist. And they asked for his advice, and they said, look, it’s transactional. Be very simple. Don’t, you know, come in with a ton of charts and briefings. Just come in with a transaction. And so what happened after that? Well, the chief executive of Lockheed went to her next meeting with Trump and said we’re going to expand this plan. We’re going to cut the price on the F-35 and we’re going to say it’s all because of you. And pretty soon, Trump was out there praising Lockheed Martin, and the criticism stopped.”
A spokesman for Lockheed Martin confirmed that Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, did approach the company to offer consulting services, but that Lockheed Martin did not engage the company. Asked if there was any quid quo pro to allow Trump to take credit for cost reductions already in plan, Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Lockheed, referred us to Hewson’s public statements, which include this Feb. 3 comment: “President Trump’s personal involvement in the F-35 program accelerated the negotiations and sharpened our focus on driving down the price.” The comment at the time was widely interpreted to mean that he gave the talks a sense of urgency, without affecting the actual dollar amount.
PRAISE FOR NEW DIA CHIEF: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats issued a statement on the day Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley took over from Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. “Lt. Gen. Ashley carries a wealth of experience in the Intelligence Community, both as a producer and consumer. He is exceptionally qualified to serve in this important defense intelligence post, having previously served as the director of intelligence at U.S. Central Command and the Joint Special Operations Command, and as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence and Fort Huachuca, AZ,” Coats said.
McCAIN’S RANT: Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain began yesterday’s hearing designed to provide his committee with details of the new Afghanistan strategy, by berating Mattis and Dunford for not providing the committee with details on the new plan. “In the six weeks since the president made his announcement, this committee and the Congress, more broadly, still does not know many of the crucial details of this strategy,” McCain fumed. “This is totally unacceptable. I repeat, this is totally unacceptable.”
Then after the secretary and the chairman laid out the broad concept of operations, McCain used his opening five minutes to summarize his written rebuke, with a repeat of his irritation over the lack of specifics, but curiously did not ask a single question to elicit the “crucial details” he said were missing. McCain, usually one one of the most aggressive interrogators on the committee, stayed for about an hour listening to questions from other senators, before departing, and not returning. A spokeswoman suggested it was no big deal. “Senators come and go from hearings all the time,” said Julie Tarallo.
Wall Street Journal: Putin tells Huntsman he hopes U.S. won’t meddle in Russian affairs
AP: Iran deal’s future may hinge on face-saving fix for Trump
New York Times: After threat of war, Iraq and Kurds lower the temperature
Task and Purpose: Watch Safehaven Marine’s stealthy new high-speed interceptor in action
Military.com: Reports of in-flight problems may stem from cultural change: Navy