Despite mounting frustrations with the course of the war, President Trump has backed away from an option to pull all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan, days after reports claimed the administration was seriously considering the move as part of its pending plan of action for the 16-year-old war.
White House officials reportedly had been weighing plans to withdraw all 8,400 American service members from the war-torn country, effectively ending the mission. Some voices within the White House, reportedly led by chief strategist Steve Bannon, touted the withdrawal plan while other administration officials were coalescing around a strategy calling for more than 3,900 additional U.S. forces to be sent into Afghanistan.
But the White House has all but abandoned any notion of a partial or complete withdrawal from the central Asian nation, dubbed the “zero option” by Obama administration strategists, with many inside the Pentagon privately noting that the idea was essentially dead on arrival among senior military leaders.
Mr. Trump’s move to take full withdrawal off the table shows the cross-currents that have marked the debate. White House officials have found themselves mired in the effort to forge a new strategy and the right level of U.S. military commitment in a conflict where the Afghan government is struggling to regain the initiative from the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
NBC News reported Wednesday on a top-level White House strategy meeting July 19 in which Mr. Trump complained bitterly about the course of the war and even suggested replacing Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The meeting made no progress in reaching a consensus on a new Afghanistan strategy, which Mr. Trump ordered Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Pentagon to produce.
Private analysts say the debate over troop levels is a sign that deeper rethinking is badly needed.
“The Trump administration should evaluate the merits of a prolonged commitment in detail, make any commitment clearly conditional and set clear requirement for Afghan action,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior military strategist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. That said, Mr. Trump and his team of advisers “cannot simply sit and wait, take token action and issue more empty words without losing the war.”
Mr. Mattis and other senior war planners at the Pentagon are in an indefinite holding pattern for Afghanistan. For the past several weeks, defense officials led by Mr. Mattis have been assessing the progress of the Afghanistan War and determining what level of support — including a 3,000- to 5,000-troop increase — would be required to stabilize the country’s security forces. The Pentagon chief publicly stated that the war guidance would be in place by mid-July.
Defense Department spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis declined to comment on the White House’s stance on the zero option for Afghanistan. He said department officials stood ready to carry out any actions ordered by the White House once they are finalized and sent to the Pentagon.
As news was released that the White House was abandoning the full withdrawal option Wednesday, two more U.S. casualties in southern Afghanistan were reported. The Pentagon confirmed that two American service members were killed after a Taliban suicide bomber struck a NATO convoy traveling through southern Afghanistan’s volatile Kandahar province. Local reports say three coalition soldiers were wounded in the attack.
Officials at Resolute Support, the American- and NATO-led military support operation in Afghanistan, confirmed that coalition forces did suffer casualties. The two soldiers were the eighth and ninth Americans killed in Afghanistan this year.
The U.S. has 8,400 troops are in Afghanistan, training and advising local security forces. One troop surge option that the Trump administration is considering would raise the number of U.S. forces in the country to over 10,000. NATO leaders have agreed to increase their troop levels in concert with the proposed American increases.
Mr. Trump was widely expected to announce details of the White House’s Afghanistan plan in mid-July during a rare visit to the Pentagon. But Mr. Trump remained mum on Afghanistan during the visit, where he met with Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. As Washington heads into the legislative doldrums of summer, the debate continues among Mr. Trump’s inner circle, national security officials and military leaders on what action to take in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan received little to no attention on the campaign trail last year, with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Mr. Trump opting to focus on the U.S.-led coalition to defeat Islamic State. But Taliban advances this spring and the increased Islamic State presence in the eastern half of Afghanistan drew more attention to the conflict.
That attention was focused further last week when White House officials suggested that Mr. Trump was seriously considering a partial or complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It’s a macro question as to whether the U.S., this administration and this president are committed to staying,” one senior administration official told The Wall Street Journal on Sunday. “It doesn’t work unless we are there for a long time, and if we don’t have the appetite to be there a long time, we should just leave.”
It remains unclear what prompted Mr. Trump or his advisers to abandon the withdrawal option, but the decision was made days after former Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly was named as White House chief of staff. Pulled from his leadership position at the Department of Homeland Security to replace Reince Priebus, Mr. Kelly has well-documented hawkish positions on Afghanistan and the American war there.
Mr. Kelly is an Iraq veteran whose son was killed during combat operations in Afghanistan. Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Michael Kelly was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Helmand province in 2010.
“If you think this war against our way of life is over because some of the self-appointed opinion-makers and chattering class grow war-weary, because they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mistaken. This enemy is dedicated to our destruction,” Mr. Kelly said during a closed-door speech in 2014.
The White House’s delay in formulating a viable war plan for Afghanistan has drawn the ire of several defense-minded lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, announced Monday that he plans to draft legislation outlining his own Afghanistan plan and tying it to the Pentagon’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year.
Mr. McCain, an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump’s national security policies, is expected to introduce an amendment to the Defense Department’s spending blueprint detailing what the next steps should be.
“When the Senate takes up the National Defense Authorization Act in September, I will offer an amendment based on the advice of some of our best military leaders that will provide a strategy for success in achieving America’s national interests in Afghanistan,” Mr. McCain said in his statement. “Eight years of a ‘don’t lose’ strategy has cost us lives and treasure in Afghanistan. Our troops deserve better.”
Mr. McCain took Mr. Trump’s national security team to task over the lack of a new Afghanistan war plan in June, when Mr. Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate defense panel on the Pentagon’s budget.
“I hope you understand the dilemma you are presenting to us,” Mr. McCain said at the time.