On Sunday John McCain, a longtime U.S. Senator from Arizona who heads the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and onetime Republican Party presidential candidate, appeared on the popular Face the Nation news program. The last question host John Dickerson asked McCain was about Afghanistan.
McCain, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolinian Republican, made a visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan over the 4th of July holiday. Back in Washington, McCain has been at the forefront of congressional criticism of the White House, especially when it comes to Afghanistan.
Asked by Dickerson on Sunday for his “sense of the picture there,” McCain was unwavering. “We have no strategy. And we are losing. When you’re not winning, you’re losing,” he said. McCain then cited “unacceptable losses” being borne by the Afghan National Army.
According to US Forces-Afghanistan, cited by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF, which encompasses the Afghan National Army, Air Force, National Police, Local Police and National Directorate of Security) incurred 2,135 casualties in the first two months of 2017 alone. With 807 killed and 1,328 wounded, SIGAR remarked that the figures are on track with those from 2016,
“And we are going to have a new strategy,” McCain continued, “You know, they’re coming to us and ask for additional funds, for additional people, and additional missions.”
McCain explained that without a strategy, Congress can’t really get to policymaking.
“We won’t do that unless they give us a strategy,” McCain said “I’ve been asking General Mattis, who I’m a great admirer of, General McMaster, I’m a great admirer of, ‘Where is the strategy? Where is the strategy?’ Then we can have a policy. Then we authorize funding, and troops, and tanks, and guns.”
McCain was quite clear in where he thinks the current problem resides:
And, you know, we all know what the problem is. It’s in the White House. They’ve got to get their act together, announce a strategy. That has to be done by the president, by the way. And tell the American people, “We’ve got to win there. Don’t forget 9/11. And here is what we need to do to get there.” Unfortunately, there is so much disarray within the White House. But I am confident the United States of America, the best and strongest nation on earth, can do it.
Donald Trump’s administration has been slow in unveiling a coherent strategy with regard to Afghanistan.
Last month, administration officials told the New York Times that President Trump had given Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, “the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan.” But last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that after the president grant that authority, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, wrote a classified memo limited the additional forces the Pentagon can deploy to 3,900, with the stipulation that more would need to be cleared with the White House. McMaster (himself a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army), with such a memo, was putting some political reins back on the issue which the president had so easily discarded.
The president is obsessed with winning — commenting in February, for example, that “We have to start winning wars again” — but Afghanistan is not an election or a game of checkers. “Winning” is decisive, but without a strategy we don’t know what “winning” actually looks like to the White House.
Not that issuing a strategy leads to success or “winning.” Obama, after pursing a surge in 2009, iterated an Afghanistan strategy which featured a withdrawal timeline, something McCain complained vociferously about in 2010, calling it a “political decision… not one based on facts on the ground, not one based on military strategy.”
Seven years later, the White House is eschewing its political duty to set a course for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, leaning heavily on military leaders for whom it has yet to calibrate a strategy.