Frustrated by his options, President Donald Trump is withholding approval of a long-delayed Afghanistan war strategy and even mulling a radical shakeup in his national security team as he searches for a “game changer” after 16 years of indecisive conflict.
In a recent Situation Room meeting that turned explosive, Trump raised the idea of firing General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussion. And he suggested installing his national security adviser, General HR McMaster, to oversee the mission, said the officials, who weren’t authorised to talk publicly and requested anonymity.
The drastic suggestions point to the desperation shared by many in Washington as military and other leaders look for a blueprint for “winning” the Afghan conflict. Trump has been frustrated by what he views as a stalemate. He wants a plan that will allow American forces to pull out once and for all.
At a White House lunch with military brass last week, Trump publicly aired his misgivings, saying, “I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years.”
The Pentagon wants to send almost 4,000 more American forces to expand training of Afghan military forces and beef up US counter-terrorism operations against Al-Qaeda, a growing Islamic State affiliate and other extremist groups. But the troop deployment, which would augment an already existing US force of at least 8,400 troops, has been held up amid broader strategy questions, including how to engage regional powers in an effort to stabilise the fractured nation.
These powers include US friends and foes, from Pakistan and India to China, Russia and Iran. Pentagon plans aren’t calling for a radical departure from the limited approach endorsed by former President Barack Obama, and several officials have credited Trump with rightly asking tough questions, such as how the prescribed approach might lead to success.