Mattis’ Fruitless Search for an Afghan Strategy Solved

By Lt. Col (ret) Daniel L. Davis

It has been reported in recent days that President Trump has angrily rejected the latest recommendation from his national security staff for a new Afghan war strategy. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in other venues, has claimed the reason for the delay is that forming strategy is “hard work.” Carrying out any plan involving the use of lethal military power is unquestionably hard to carry out, but despite the Secretary’s protestations to the contrary, forming a strategy on long running failing war is not as challenging as claimed. There is, however, a solid option for the Commander-in-Chief, which apparently no general has offered: military withdrawal.

During a Pentagon press conference, Secretary Mattis responded to questions on the delay of the Afghan war strategy by stating, “Seriously, this is hard… and anyone who says otherwise is someone who has not had to deal with it.” The argument was a straw man. No one would ever suggest it was easy.

President Trump has said he intends to pursue “a foreign policy based on American interests, [and] will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies.” That is the approach American voters chose last November, and it’s the right course of action. If Mattis wants Trump to approve his plan, it must embody the spirit of the president’s declared foreign policy.

This new plan should be based on a sober, rational analysis of the strategic environment that surrounds current Afghan policy and an examination of why it is now failing.

In response to 9/11, President Bush told the nation he was responding to the terror attacks by ordering the military to conduct “carefully targeted actions” which he said were “designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” [Emphasis mine]

Words are important. The president’s order to “disrupt” the use of Afghanistan “as a terrorist base of operations” were fully accomplished.

The objectives of his administration were sound, militarily attainable, and improved the security of the nation. By the summer of 2002, the mission had been a complete success. The president should then have ordered the withdrawal of the military. Instead, he changed the objectives and expanded the mission. Since that time, America has suffered 15 full years of strategic failure.

There is, however, a military and diplomatic mission the now president could order that is attainable, compatible with his foreign policy philosophy, and will enhance the security of the nation: a near-term military withdrawal.

President Trump has the responsibility to change courses again, narrowly focusing our military mission to “disrupt” any future use of Afghanistan as a base of terror operations. He does not need a single American troop on the ground in that country to accomplish that objective.

President Trump should direct his Secretary of Defense to produce a strategy that reflects that fact. Any plan that merely modifies current policy will fail to achieve that goal.


Maintenance of a robust global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability is key to keeping the president informed of the presence of any terror cell, on the territory of any nation, plotting to attack American interests. Should any future threats to U.S. security be identified operating on Afghan soil, American forces in the region, aboard ships, or global attack assets could be used to attack and destroy them.

Military withdrawal does not mean the abandoning the region. It means establishing a realistic match between ways, ends, and means; assigning the military missions for which it is fully capable of accomplishing; and put a stop to the practice of sacrificing the lives of US troops in pursuit of the unattainable.

President Trump should be applauded for resisting the urge to simply sign off on a strategy that extends the failed status quo in Afghanistan. Military withdrawal and global ISR are the best way to assure American national security, safeguard the lives of American service members, and preserve the Armed Forces’ fighting strength for the next time it is needed.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1

This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on August 16, 2017. Read more HERE.