- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2017

President Trump kept the world and Washington’s national security establishment in suspense Thursday, refusing to disclose details of the White House’s war plan for Afghanistan and the fight against the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump played coy with the press corps covering his visit to the Pentagon, where he met with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson. The meeting reportedly focused on the U.S.’ next steps in the campaigns against the Taliban and ISIS.

However, the Pentagon characterized the sit-down as a discussion on “global security matters.”

The closed-door meeting came a day after Mr. Mattis and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed congressional lawmakers on the status of both campaigns, as well as on details about the upcoming release of the administration’s Afghanistan war plan. The Pentagon repeatedly has stated that the war plan would be on Mr. Trump’s desk by mid-July.

That plan reportedly includes a request for thousands of additional U.S. troops to be deployed to Southwest Asia. Asked whether he plans to approve plans calling for extra American forces to Afghanistan, Mr. Trump replied, “We’ll see. We’re doing very well against ISIS. ISIS is falling fast,” before heading into the meeting with Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson.

Afterward, the commander in chief described it as “a very good meeting” while declining to comment on any progress on finalizing an Afghanistan strategy.

For several weeks, defense officials, led by Mr. Mattis, have assessed the progress of the Afghanistan war and determined 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 analyses and reviews by private sector analysts say as much as 60 percent of Afghanistan is heavily influenced by or under direct sway of the Taliban. Afghan troops, advised by U.S. and NATO forces, have suffered heavy casualties in maintaining control over the 40 percent of the country ruled by the central government in Kabul.

U.S. forces, with the blessing of the Trump White House, in April took the decisive step in dropping the largest, non-nuclear bomb on targets in eastern Afghanistan suspected of housing senior Islamic State leaders. At 22,000 pounds and with a blast yield equivalent to 11 tons of TNT, the weapon nicknamed “The Mother of All Bombs” was used in combat for the first time by U.S. forces.

Currently, 8,400 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan training and advising local security forces. Should the top-end troop increase proposal go into effect, it would raise the number of U.S. forces in the country to more 10,000. In addition to the increases sought by the Pentagon, NATO leaders have agreed to surge forces into the war-torn country. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the decision during an alliance ministerial earlier this year.

The Trump administration announced earlier this year that decisions on troop numbers would be the exclusive domain of Mr. Mattis and his staff. But recent reports state that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has instituted a soft cap of 3,900 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, raising questions about the true level of autonomy the Pentagon will have in determining the next steps in the war.

The proposed 3,900-man troop cap “is a stopgap until we can come up with a complete strategy it is not a permanent cap,” said Bill Roggio, managing editor of the Long War Journal and an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Thursday’s meeting marked the second time Mr. Trump has visited the Pentagon.

During his first visit in January, the president unveiled plans to institute a travel ban on several Muslim majority nations, putting the Defense Department in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle of one of the administration’s more controversial policies.

Vice President Mike Pence, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin also accompanied Mr. Trump to the Pentagon on Thursday.

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