Analysis Military

Reading Tea Leaves for Christmas

The news from Afghanistan was trumped this week by the announcement that Secretary of Defense James Mattis will retire this February. The announcement apparently followed a serious disagreement over the sudden withdrawal of some 4,000 troops from Syria. I didn’t know we had a 4,000 man JSOF force in Syria. Seth Harp at The New Yorker filed an interesting story about them last month. From the article:

The largest American military base in Syria covers more than five hundred acres, but it can’t be seen from the road… But, past the checkpoint and up a hill, a vast encampment spread out before us. … The runway was more than a mile long, and sunk below grade, so that planes would seem to disappear as they landed.

There are over a dozen bases in Syria, four of them airfields, custom-built to include mile long runways that allow planes to land in defilade. The SOF folks have good OPSEC, so you never see much in the press about the troops deployed on their operations. Syria is much bigger than most of us who pay attention to these things thought it was.

The day after, President Trump announced he plans to withdraw half of the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan too. Secretary Mattis obviously strongly disagrees with these cuts, which reminds me of the last time he was forced to resign by President Obama.

Thomas Ricks says Mattis was fired because:

Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way – not because he went all “mad dog,” which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran.  Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable.  Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe?  What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf?  He kept saying, “And then what?”

It’s not hard to see the second and third order consequences for pulling out of Syria, and starting to do the same in Afghanistan, that would concern Secretary Mattis. To add even more drama to the story, President Trump, after taking the time to read Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter, announced he would be leaving his post on 1 January, two months ahead of schedule.

The current Deputy of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who came to the DoD from Boeing, is now the acting Secretary of Defense.  He was the vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems and also a vice president and general manager of Boeing Rotorcraft Systems. President Trump could make a case that it is time to significantly reduce military deployments to concentrate on areas that are having significant readiness issues and military aviation is certainly having issues. A former Boeing guy would make a some sense if that was what the President was going to focus on but I doubt that is the plan.

On the 20th of December the Defense Department issued its semiannual report — “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” — covering events during the period June 1 to November 30, 2018. That report included this optimistic assessment of our efforts to date:

Elections, increased diplomatic efforts, and social and religious pressure on the Taliban this reporting period have generated optimism within the Afghan government and ANDSF that a durable and inclusive settlement with the Taliban is possible. The key to success remains sustained military pressure against the Taliban.  By convincing the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield, and credibly committing to a conditions based strategy, we have greatly increased the odds of concluding a settlement on terms favorable to the United States and Afghanistan.

That plan has, if the troop numbers are suddenly cut in half, been overcome by events.  Interestingly, last week U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad concluded talks with the Taliban that were focused on the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. The Government of Afghanistan was not included in these talks.

In an article printed in the Daily Mail on Christmas Eve Gen. Scott Miller said he has not received orders to withdraw anyone. That doesn’t mean orders to send 7,000 Americans home this summer won’t eventually come down the chain. Those types of movements take time to plan, so you’d expect a number of warning orders to various commands to establish the command structure and organization required to lift that much gear, equipment, and personnel out of theater.

The concern in Afghanistan is that President Ashraf Ghani’s fragile unity government would collapse if US troops pulled out, enabling the Taliban to return to power and potentially sparking another bloody civil war. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

I have no idea how President Trump’s wishes will be translated into an adjusted  mission in Afghanistan. One thing I do know is that Congress is going to now get involved in an area they have been neglecting for years: the war powers clause.

The constitutions states:

[The Congress shall have Power…] To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

In 1973 Congress passed the War Powers Resolution requiring the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without a Congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) or a declaration of war by the United States.

If there is a case to be made for staying in Afghanistan or Syria it would appear it is now up to Congress, the Department of State and the Pentagon to make that case. Congress is being forced to do a job they have been neglecting, and that is authorizing (and funding) the use of force overseas.

Even if NATO were to pull out of Afghanistan, the government in Kabul isn’t going anywhere. They have a ton of firepower but they will have to pull out of some remote, lightly populated districts to concentrate that power. For all we know China and India may offer to step into the breach to support the Afghan military. I don’t think that’s likely, but it would be interesting.

The Kabul government is not going to magically evolve into a competent, just, federal bureaucracy. It’s corrupt and will remain so. The tribal areas of Pakistan are not going to suddenly stop providing sanctuary, logistics, and support to the Afghan Taliban. Without doing something about those two fundamental problems, there is no way to achieve a military solution in Afghanistan.

Our current long-term strategy depends on our ability to create a functional, legitimate, sustainable central government and there is little evidence that we can successfully accomplish that mission. Now that point may be moot as President Trump may be going his own way, while ignoring some of the most qualified experts who have ever served along the way. It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

As it stands right now, Afghanistan is about to get some really bad news.

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2 years ago

Tim, my opinion is clear, in other articles I have posted in, but suffice to say I fall inline with Mattis, yourself, Alex Hollings, and others. I am a student of Afghanistan from 79 on, and anything I have learned is the constant shuffling of the guard by this cabinet or that cabinet have only exacerbated and drug these wars out necessarily so. I am deeply disturbed by Matti’s departure, his replacement and Trump’s world view.

2 years ago
Reply to  Baba Tim

I know you will keep us informed. Thank you!

2 years ago
Reply to  Mason

I’m with you Mason.

2 years ago

Baba Tim, I look forward to your weekly Afghanistan news updates. I have heard mixed feelings about the departure of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but I personally felt comfort knowing that someone with decades of military service had command and authority over the U.S. military. Not that Shanahan’s not a smart guy. MIT is a great engineering institute, but the strategy of war with men and women’s lives at risk is a different game plan. I’m curious if Shanahan is required to divest his financial interest such as stocks and options in Boeing?

2 years ago
Reply to  Mic-Mac

Mic-Shanahan can tell you how to build a helicopter or hire the right engineers. He’s a smart guy. Are his skills transferable to being in charge of the military and not purchase orders? I’m fearful he’s like having Neil Patrick Harris do surgery on me because he played Doogie Houser on TV. In fact, I’m concerned at the number of “Actors” in the administration. Acting SecDef. Acting Attorney General, Acting this and that…….all of whom don’t have to face any scrutiny because they aren’t the actual nominees.

2 years ago
Reply to  LPD256

You are right LPD.

2 years ago
Reply to  Baba Tim

Tim-Businessmen aren’t trained usually in military matters. Our CIC however values business acumen over actual qualifications sometimes, because that’s what he understands. I’m not sure he understands “recusal” either or conflict of interest.

2 years ago

Thanks for this article, Tim. We do live in interesting times. Hopefully, this plays out so the US comes out ahead without causing endless torture to others. But, we have never been involved in a war that was fair. I don’t see that these “military actions” and decisions are any different. In my view, it seems as if the Taliban has been “winning” in Afghanistan more and more often. And, they are gaining strength as more and more men in and out of Afghanistan see their success. Is my vision skewed?

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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