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Aug 21, 2017

For Trump’s generals, this is personal. CNN.com

For Trump’s generals, this is personal
Peter Bergen

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst

Peter Bergen says many of the President’s top advisers have served in Afghanistan or have personal ties to the war
They know that an abrupt withdrawal would be a mistake, Bergen says

“Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.””

(CNN)The seriously deteriorating situation in Afghanistan — and what to do about it — is a deeply personal issue for Trump’s top national security advisers and generals.

In the months after the 9/11 attacks, Trump’s secretary of defense, retired Marine four-star General James Mattis, led the deepest assault from a ship in Marine Corps history near the key Taliban city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

Trump’s National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster served in Afghanistan, leading an anti-corruption task force there in 2010.

Trump’s top military adviser, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, was the commanding general in Afghanistan in 2013.
And General John Kelly, the retired four-star Marine general who is now Trump’s chief of staff, lost a son in Afghanistan, 29-year-old Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly who was killed by a landmine there in 2010.

Four days after his son’s death, in a speech in St. Louis, Kelly said that the United States’ war against jihadist terrorists will go on for a very long time. “The American military has handed our ruthless enemy defeat after defeat, but it will go on for years, if not decades, before this curse has been eradicated,” he said at the time.

So when it came to developing a new strategy for Afghanistan, the generals brought a degree of commitment to the longest war in US history that their commander in chief, at least initially, did not share.

In 2013, for example, Trump tweeted, “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.”

The generals had a different view of what was at stake.

Generals Mattis, Kelly and Dunford have fought alongside each other since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Then-Major General Mattis, then-Brigadier General Kelly and then-Colonel Dunford led the Marine force that went into Iraq in March 2003 during the initial US invasion of the country.

All of them experienced the visceral sense that US forces leaving Iraq at the end of 2011 helped pave the way for the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of ISIS’s campaign in Iraq in 2014.

None of them want the same scenario to play out in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is at its strongest point since 9/11 and a virulent local affiliate of ISIS has established itself.

These Marine generals also know how hard-fought were the battles in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, where 349 Marines died in a campaign that began there in 2009 and ended in 2014.

Now 300 Marines are back in Helmand because the Taliban have recently regained territory the Marines had seized there several years ago. The Taliban also control or contest about a third of the Afghan population, around ten million people.

Monday at 9 p.m. ET, President Trump will make an unusual prime-time address from Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia about what his Afghanistan and larger South Asia strategy will be.

Trump’s national security advisers and generals with deep experience in Afghanistan have advised against a complete withdrawal and against the notion of using contractors as substitutes for US soldiers.

Both these options were on the table as the Trump national security team discussed the options in Afghanistan.

Those options were being pushed, in part, by Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who was forced out of the White House on Friday.

Bannon didn’t attend the final war cabinet meeting on Afghanistan that Trump hosted at Camp David on Friday.

A decision to use American contractors in battlefield roles would face a number of legal obstacles, not least that they would be subject to Afghan laws.

For these reasons, privatizing the Afghan war and outsourcing it to contractors or withdrawing completely were really non-starters during the war cabinet’s deliberations on Afghanistan.

Trump officials are tight-lipped about what Trump will announce on Monday night, but he is likely to endorse something close to what the National Security Council plan for Afghanistan has been for the past few months. By mid-June, Trump’s approach to the Afghan War was emerging and it was different from President Obama’s in an important respect.

Trump seemed to be committing US military forces to an open-ended deployment in Afghanistan, according to a senior US official familiar with the plans.
While Obama surged tens of thousands of additional US troops into Afghanistan, he also simultaneously announced their withdrawal date. According to the US official, the Trump administration won’t make the same mistake.

Trump on Monday night will likely also announce some form of conditionality for the expanded US presence in Afghanistan, setting benchmarks, for instance, to reduce corruption in one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Trump may also mention Afghanistan’s mineral wealth as a “return on investment” that the United States can help to exploit.

Tapping Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth is a challenge because of the declining security situation and Afghanistan’s rudimentary road infrastructure, but it was one of the key items that Trump and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani discussed when Ghani called Trump to congratulate him on his election to the presidency, according to a senior Afghan official.

When Trump speaks on Monday night, the additional American forces he will likely announce he is sending to Afghanistan are not going there to do anything close to “nation building.” But they are providing triage to help reinforce the Afghan army, which faces its gravest challenge yet from the Taliban.
The United States’ key strategic goal in Afghanistan is to prevent the country from being taken over by jihadist groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS, allowing the country to be once again used as a launching pad for attacks against the United States and its allies, as it was on September 11, 2001.

So far, that goal has cost the lives of 2,403 American soldiers.

Trump’s top national security advisers and generals understand both the stakes and the costs of the Afghan War well, because they have been personally deeply affected by it.

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