- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

With the Trump administration overdue in delivering a strategic plan for the 16-year-old U.S. war in Afghanistan, everyone from Sen. John McCain to the Taliban to the head of the country’s best-known private security firm is rushing to fill the policy void.

U.S. military leaders are pushing for more troops to combat gains by the Taliban and Islamic State elements against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, but Mr. Trump has questioned whether the American-backed effort is succeeding and has yet to sign off on a revised strategy.

In what it called an open letter to President Trump, the Islamist Taliban movement on Tuesday urged him to reject his own defense team and put an “end to an inherited war” with a full U.S. withdrawal.

“We have noticed that you have understood the errors of your predecessors and have resolved to thoroughly rethinking your new strategy in Afghanistan,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in the message. “You must also not hand over the Afghan issue to warmongering generals, but must make a decision where history shall remember you as an advocate of peace.”

Mr. McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, released his Afghanistan plan last week while expressing frustration with the administration’s delay.

“Nearly seven months into President Trump’s administration, we’ve had no strategy at all as conditions on the ground have steadily worsened,” Mr. McCain said Thursday. “The thousands of Americans putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan deserve better from their commander in chief.”

The McCain plan doesn’t set a troop number but would set conditions on U.S. assistance to the corruption-ridden Afghan government while allowing U.S. forces to be more aggressive in pursuing the Taliban, al Qaeda, Islamic State and other extremists.

The plan, Mr. McCain said, is to “deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy the ability of terrorist groups to conduct attacks against the United States, its allies or its core interests,” according to The Associated Press.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said this week that the White House and national security leaders are putting the finishing touches on several options for the Afghanistan War and plans to present them to Mr. Trump within the coming weeks. But it remains unclear whether the president will adopt any of the options presented or forge his own path.

“I’ll just tell you that we are very, very close on this,” Mr. Mattis told reporters Monday at the Pentagon. Mr. Trump “has not delegated one ounce of the strategic decision-making, nor should he, nor would I expect that.”

Missing a deadline

For months, defense officials led by Mr. Mattis have been assessing the state of the Afghanistan conflict, determining what level of support — including a 3,000- to 5,000-troop increase — will be required to stabilize the country’s security forces.

Government-led analysis, as well as reviews by private researchers, say as much as 40 percent of Afghanistan is heavily influenced by or under the direct sway of the Taliban. Afghan forces, advised by U.S. and NATO forces, have suffered heavy casualties trying to hold the territory it does control.

White House officials and Mr. Mattis previously said the Afghanistan War plan would be finalized by mid-July, a deadline that has come and gone.

The process reportedly has been stymied by White House infighting. One faction, led by top White House strategist Steve Bannon, has been pressing Mr. Trump for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces, to be possibly replaced by roughly 5,000 private security contractors. Other administration officials, reportedly including White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, both retired four-star generals, back a war plan calling for more than 3,900 additional U.S. forces for Afghanistan.

The 8,400 American troops currently in Afghanistan are training and advising local security forces. The proposed troop surge would raise the number of U.S. forces in the country to over 10,000. NATO leaders have agreed to increase forces in concert with the American surge.

Mr. Mattis and other senior Pentagon officials have denied claims that White House divisions are to blame for the delay in releasing an Afghanistan War plan. Defense officials say Mr. Trump and his advisers want to comprehensively review all options for the longest war in U.S. history before committing to a way ahead.

One option reportedly includes deploying a large force of security contractors to handle the bulk of the train-and-advise mission — essentially privatizing the conflict with mercenaries. The plan has been proposed by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater whose private security firm faced heavy criticism for its handling of U.S. government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Prince’s plan would recruit a 5,000-member contractor force, backed by a privately owned air force, operating outside the military’s chain of command. “We’re spending too much in Afghanistan, and it’s making the insurgency worse through corruption and leakage to the Taliban,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times this month.

“I then heard about a big troop surge [proposal], and I thought that was a dumb idea. I’m going to contract everything. I’m going to get down to some spending sanity.”

The White House this month reportedly all but abandoned any notion of a partial or complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, dubbed the “zero option” by Obama administration strategists. Many inside the Pentagon privately say the idea was essentially dead on arrival among senior military leaders. But until Mr. Trump signs off a plan, the footprint of the U.S. force in the coming months will remain a question mark.

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