Trump bets on Mattis and outsources Afghanistan war to the Pentagon

By Daniel DePetris

At about noon on Tuesday, June 13, President Donald Trump made his first major decision on Afghanistan. From here on out, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will be the sole decision-maker on how many, and when, U.S. military personnel will be deployed. The delegation of authority to set the overall troop number is designed to provide U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, the commander in Afghanistan, with the ability to get the manpower, enablers, and aircraft he requests on a faster timetable to address a fast-moving battlefield situation.

Tactically speaking, delegating this kind of power to the Pentagon theoretically makes sense. The less time commanders in the field have to wait for the bureaucracy to function, the faster that forces in theater can executive their missions. As Mattis wrote after he was granted the additional authority, streamlining the orders "ensures the Department of Defense can facilitate our missions and align our commitment to the rapidly evolving security situation, giving our troops greater latitude to provide air power and other vital support.”

That may sound good, again tactically speaking,  but from a strategic perspective, depending upon the Pentagon to make decisions ordinarily left to the President of the United States is a dangerous proposition. Shortening a rigorous policymaking process in order to speed up wartime deployments is about as close to operating on auto-pilot as one can be. 

Before we place all of our nation's trust in Sec. Mattis alone and codify this delegation of authority into a permanent arrangement for the rest of the administration, President Trump and his military advisers need to keep these three things in mind.

1. The popular perception may be negative for the president: Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution is explicit on which individual is the principal military official in the country: "The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States." In layman's terms, the President is the chief general of the U.S. Armed Forces– the only person in the U.S. government who has the power, duty, and responsibility to determine how many American service-members will be sent to a combat environment (assuming, of course, Congress has authorized the use of force.,  Nobody other than the president, in his status as Commander-in-Chief, can make those difficult, life-and-death decisions.

As a 40-year Marine Corps veteran, Sec. Mattis has seen his fair share of warfare. He recognizes the human cost of conflict, and there are very few men and women in the active-duty officer corps who have the breadth of experience and legendary stature that James Mattis has accumulated over decades.  Yet as much credibility as Mattis has in Washington, it doesn't look good for the president to duck and weave, avoiding the constitutional responsibilities of his office. Boston University historian and Vietnam combat veteran Andrew Bacevich put it best: "For all practical purposes the president is forfeiting control of policy.”

Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, expressed the legitimate concern that delegating power over troop levels away from the White House could "take the president out of political decisions he should make."  Mattis attempted to assure the committee that Trump is in the loop on anything that has to do with war strategy.  The Commander-in-Chief, however, shouldn't be just another cog in the machine - he ought to be at the center of every discussion and debate so long as thousands of American troops remain on Afghan soil."  

2. Numbers are getting ahead of the strategy: In testimony to the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, Secretary Mattis assured the panel that regardless of Trump's directive, he doesn't have complete and unfettered freedom to do whatever he wants. The troop deployments he recommends, according to Mattis, will come only after consultation with his inter-agency colleagues and in alignment with the actual war strategy that the president signs on to.

Mattis has called for an addition 4,000 U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan, yet the National Security Council still has not presented a plan to the president, which means that Trump permitted the Defense Department to prepare to increase America force levels before the administration developed its strategy.

Discussions about resources and personnel should happen only after a strategy is established and everyone in the national security bureaucracy understands what the goals are. In this instance, Trump is deferring some of his own Commander-in-Chief authority to the military before signing off on the game plan.

3. The slippery slope just got steeper:  War, as any person in uniform will tell you, is an unpredictable beast. Not even generals with four decades of experience fighting, managing, and commanding troops have all the answers. The war in Afghanistan, which has lasted nearly 16 years, soaked up hundreds of billions of dollars, and outlasted several dramatic troop increases across two administrations, is a living and breathing metaphor for why military-centric solutions often aren't enough to pacify an insurgent-afflicted country.

Trump's delegation of war power largely ignores America's recent history in Afghanistan. Military solutions to insurgencies are ineffective when the insurgents you are fighting can count on porous borders, a safe-haven in a neighboring country, and a host government unable to wean itself off of its addiction to corruption. Pushing so much control to the Pentagon has the risk of reinforcing a confidence in the current crop of commanders that they can succeed where previous commanders failed.

Military stripes, stars, and medals are to President Trump what tall, named skyscrapers were to Businessman Trump. He places a lot of trust in his generals and relies on their judgment. But in this case, he's relying on their judgment too much.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities

This piece was originally published by The Hill on June 21, 2017. Read more HERE.