How Would Reagan’s Defense Secretary View the New Afghanistan Strategy?

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in Washington, D.C. in February 1981.

Bob Daugherty/AP

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Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in Washington, D.C. in February 1981.

Caspar Weinberger’s six principles for using military force are a useful lens on Trump’s newish path in Southwest Asia.

How shall we evaluate President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy? One useful way is to measure it against Caspar Weinberger’s succinct framework for sending U.S. troops to fight abroad. In a 1984 speech at the National Press Club, the then-defense secretary laid out six principles:

  1. First, the United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies;
  2. Second, if we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning;
  3. Third, if we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives;
  4. Fourth, the relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed — their size, composition and disposition — must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary;
  5. Fifth, before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress; and

Finally, the commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort.

Mr. Weinberger cautioned that these tests were just a guide, but they are a useful measure of Mr. Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan — and by extension — for the larger South Asian region.

First, is the application of force to achieve the strategy in the “vital national interest” of the U.S.? In his Aug. 21 speech, President Trump said that the U.S. would keep troops in Afghanistan to prevent the return of a safe haven from which terrorists might prepare 9/11-style attacks on Americans. The president also recognized the threat to national security posed by Pakistan’s complicity in supporting Islamic terrorists. “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” he said .“Today 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The highest concentration in any region, anywhere in the world.” This, the president said, “will change immediately.”

The case for that determination was made by Secretary Weinberger back in 1984. He said, “In today’s world, the line between peace and war is less clearly drawn than at any time in our history. When George Washington, in his farewell address, warned us, as a new democracy, to avoid foreign entanglements, Europe then lay two to three months by sea over the horizon. The United States was protected by the width of the oceans. Now in this nuclear age, we measure time in minutes rather than months.” Though Weinberger was talking about nuclear threats, the same can be said about Islamic terrorists bent on spreading “chaos, violence, and terror anywhere,” as we have seen in attacks in Barcelona and elsewhere.

Consequently, the case is solid that a vital U.S. national security is at stake if the U.S. should fail to address the threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan is left unattended.

Second, are we willing to commit combat troops “wholeheartedly” and with the resources necessary to win? The Trump Administration strategy has offered no clear understanding of what “winning” means, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sept. 25 that no metrics had been set. Still, this administration has demonstrated, as much as it can in its short nine months in office, that it is willing to commit resources to support the combat forces in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the South Asia region. This question draws a qualified yes.

Third, does the U.S. have clearly defined political and military objectives? Not yet. It is encouraging that President Trump has ended the ill-conceived and comprehensively naïve practice of telling our enemies that our commitment has an expiration date. “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions,” he said. “I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military options.” So, we know that the military objective will be defined by the conditions on the ground. That is a necessary approach for any strategy. But President Trump did not elaborate on what “conditions” meant beyond this: “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America. And we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming in to the hands of terrorists, and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.” Promisingly, he also said, “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave this a more diplomatic twist, telling reporters Aug. 22, “This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand: you will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you. And so at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.” Bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table is an understandable and clear objective, but it is entirely unclear whether it can have any result that benefits U.S. national security.

Fourth, is the Trump Administration continuously reassessing the relationship between objectives and the size of forces? We simply don’t know.

Fifth, does the Administration have the support of the American public and Congress? Polls lead us to believe that American voters, at least, are at best ambivalent about the Afghanistan strategy: in August, 45 percent of voters polled (Politico-Morning Consult poll) supported the President’s plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, 41 percent opposed it,  and 14 percent had no opinion. However, when the question asked about putting more pressure on Pakistan, as the Trump strategy proposes, 76 percent of the voters polled were in favor. Congress, is as we’ve come to accept, split along party lines. It is unlikely that lawmakers will fail to support troops in the field for now, but for how long? This element of Mr. Weinberger’s test yields nothing conclusive, but clearly the deployment of more American ground forces is not enthusiastically supported.

Sixth, is this action the course of last resort? The first and second parts of the Weinberger test answer this question. But are we truly considering all options, or just two: President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy and total withdrawal? Certainly, other options exist. The U.S. could remove the current ground contingent of trainers, replace them with special operations forces, and set about killing the Taliban and other terrorists where they emerge. Or we could pull all our ground forces out and retain a campaign of air strikes on terrorists training or even gathering in Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

In his speech, Secretary Weinberger offered a warning to U.S. decision-makers. “These tests I have just mentioned have been phrased negatively for a purpose — they are intended to sound a note of caution — caution that we must observe prior to committing forces to combat overseas. When we ask our military forces to risk their very lives in such situations, a note of caution is not only prudent, it is morally required.”

President Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia strategy comes up a little short when compared against the Weinberger tests, but circumstances facing the Trump administration were set in motion long before he took office. Our hope is that thoughtful military and political decision makers will take the time to measure the new strategy against the standard that Mr. Weinberger set.

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