Pentagon officials are welcoming the greater autonomy and decision-making authority under President Trump, after what they say were years of Obama administration micromanaging.
Within the hallways and offices of the Pentagon, top military brass and national security leaders have lauded the actions taken by the Trump administration, saying privately that the Defense Department now has an opportunity to take the fight to America’s enemies after being freed from the White House’s heavy yoke under President Obama.
Mr. Trump’s decision to grant Defense Secretary James Mattis the authority to set U.S. troop levels for Afghanistan and the fight against Islamic State could ease the bitter bureaucratic battles that divided the Obama White House and the department over war strategy.
Mr. Mattis and his aides are now weighing whether to send 3,000 to 5,000 more troops into Afghanistan in the face of recent gains by the Taliban and Islamic State. Mr. Mattis, who said Mr. Trump remains heavily involved in setting the overall strategy, is expected to make his recommendations by next month.
Defense hawks on Capitol Hill have praised the approach, arguing that the military leaders have a much better sense of what it takes to fight — and win — in battle zones such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
“What a novel idea for the commander-in-chief to turn to his commanders and say, ‘What do you need to win?’” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told Mr. Mattis at a budget hearing last week. “Obama was a pretty lousy general.”
Some skeptics warn that with great power comes uncomfortable responsibility for the Defense Department, given Mr. Trump’s record of casting blame down the chain of command when certain operations go awry. If campaigns such as the one in Afghanistan fail to make progress, then the Pentagon will shoulder far more of the blame with far less political cover.
Mr. Trump previously agreed to give U.S. and coalition commanders in Iraq and Syria greater freedom on ordering airstrikes, further ingratiating the new administration into the good graces of top military brass.
Mr. Trump has finally “given the military what it needed to win” in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, said David Sedney, a onetime Obama administration aide and now a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
As Mr. Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 to 2013, Mr. Sedney had a front-row seat to the administration’s efforts to run war policy from the White House.
“It took 11 months to come up with an Afghanistan policy, which [Mr. Obama] kept reviewing over and over again,” Mr. Sedney said in an interview, recalling the endless White House meetings tied to the administration’s internal debates over the Afghanistan War. Beguiled by “artificial timelines and artificial troop caps with no relation to the situation on the ground,” Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan plan was a half-measure that extended the conflict instead of ending it, he said.
Mr. Obama cast a wary eye on the Pentagon during his tenure, reportedly complaining that the generals and admirals were trying to box him in to choose a military option in debates such as the one over troop levels in Afghanistan.
A lack of strategy?
Some analysts say the stepped-up tempo of military action under Mr. Trump — including a cruise missile strike to punish Syria for using chemical weapons and the dropping of the world’s most powerful conventional bomb on Islamic State targets in Afghanistan — are meant partly to obscure the fact that Mr. Trump has yet to formulate a concrete military and diplomatic strategy for either Afghanistan or the war against Islamic State.
“Lots of DOD folks are Republicans and did find Obama frustrating, so I have little doubt that at an emotional level, there is some relief. But dropping a few more bombs isn’t a strategy, and without effective strategies, the emotional uplift of having a new president won’t last long,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“I think it’s too early to draw conclusions [and] I’d counsel folks at the Pentagon to avoid too many spikes of footballs in the end zone just yet,” he said in an interview.
The president’s penchant “to delegate blame when things go wrong” is the negative flip side of the Pentagon’s freedom, said Hal Brands, a defense official in the Obama administration and now a senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Critics cite in particular Mr. Trump’s remarks after an inconclusive covert mission in Yemen that he approved just days after taking office in January. Administration officials said the raid yielded valuable intelligence, but Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens and a number of civilians were killed.
The raid, Mr. Trump later told Fox News, was “started before I got here” and was “something that, you know [the Defense Department] wanted to do.”
He added, “My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades and they lost Ryan.”
“In some ways, that leads to chaos,” Mr. Brands said. “I am sure that is creating frustration, and not just in DOD.”
Policy planners inside the Pentagon are keeping a wary eye on their social media accounts for fear of being “undercut by the next tweet from the White House,” he said.
In the end, the Defense Department “may ultimately not be happy with what they get from this administration,” he said. “When things go wrong, this is not a president who will say, ‘The buck stops here.’”
Chain of command
Frustration with interference from the White House under Mr. Obama appears to have peaked near the end of his second term. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, observed in late 2015 that “there’s a level of dissatisfaction among the uniformed military that I’ve never seen in my time here.”
National security policy faced “significant White House scrutiny and interagency oversight over seemingly mundane matters” under Mr. Obama, Mr. Brands said. “While it was not unprecedented, it was fairly higher than the norm.”
But Mr. Obama’s apprehension over handing the U.S. military too much tactical control, over fears that those decisions would have political impacts far beyond the battlefield, catered to a “narrow domestic audience” at the expense of the overall war effort, Mr. Sedney said.
“It kept getting us distracted. That was all inside-the-Beltway, navel-gazing,” he said. “It was really irrelevant to what was going on in the war.”
U.S. military leaders have suffered some setbacks while taking advantage of their newfound authorities on the battlefield. In March, U.S. Central Command chief Joseph Votel was forced to defend multiple cases of mass civilian casualties tied to increasingly aggressive U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Command and coalition leaders conducted three inquires that month into U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State positions, including one in the western Mosul neighborhood of al-Jadida, which reportedly leveled several buildings and left hundreds of Iraqi civilians dead.
“These are absolutely tragic and heartbreaking situations,” Gen. Votel told the House Armed Services Committee at the time. He said each allegation of civilian casualties tied to U.S. operations is taken seriously.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and Syria, acknowledged days after the attack that there was “a fair chance” a U.S. airstrike played a role in the destruction and carnage in al-Jadida.
“We probably had a role in those casualties,” the general said, adding that “the enemy had a hand in this.” He was suggesting Islamic State’s use of civilians as human shields and questioning why so many civilians would voluntarily gather in a single building under assault by American air power.
The Pentagon on June 2 acknowledged that civilian casualties in the Middle East had risen sharply since Mr. Trump took office, reflecting in part the nature of urban warfare in the campaigns against Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq.
“At least 484 civilians have been unintentionally killed by coalition strikes” since 2014, U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, said in the June 2 statement. That number was up from 199 just four months earlier. Private watchdog groups say the civilian deaths from U.S. and allied bombing strikes are far higher.
The dropping of the “Mother of all Bombs” or MOAB on an Islamic State tunnel complex in Afghanistan may have secured a tactical win, but it also became an instant Islamic State recruiting tool, Mr. Brands said.
U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan and the Middle East are filled with “sets of capable, intelligence and sober military leaders,” Mr. Brands said. But their battlefield decisions are driven “strictly for tactical reasons,” which at times usurp considerations for the strategic or political fallout, he added.
Gen. John Nicholson, head of all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, or any member of the command staff could have predicted that kind of reaction from the MOAB use, Mr. Brands said.
The hope inside the Trump White House that expanded tactical authority at the Defense Department will “achieve strategic successes” likely will not materialize, he said. “I do not know if that is realistic.”
Mr. Sedney said strategic considerations given so much heft by the Obama White House should mean less to combatant commanders on the ground. Gen. Nicholson’s deployment of the MOAB was not driven by public opinion in Washington, he said.
“Gen. Nicholson was trying to win a war,” Mr. Sedney said.