US President Trump and his military generals have different idea of victory in ‘infinite war’
The commander in chief has made winning on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan a central tenet of his foreign policy, but the army holds frequently opposing ideas about what winning means
US President Donald Trump’s pronouncement that he would be pulling troops out of Syria “very soon” has laid bare a major source of tension between the president and his generals.
Trump has made winning on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan a central tenet of his foreign policy and tough-guy identity. But Trump and the military hold frequently opposing ideas about exactly what winning means.
Those differences have played out in heated Situation Room debates over virtually every spot on the globe where US troops are engaged in combat, said senior administration officials. And they contributed to the dismissal last month of Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster who as national security adviser had pressed the president against his instincts to support an open-ended commitment of US forces to Afghanistan.
Trump’s words, both in public and private, describe a view that wars should be brutal and swift, waged with overwhelming firepower and, in some cases, with little regard for civilian casualties. Victory over America’s enemies for the president is often a matter of bombing “the s*** out of them,” as he said on the campaign trail.
He returned to the theme this week. “We’re knocking the hell” out of Islamic State, Trump said at a rally in Ohio last month. The boast was a predicate to the president insisting that US troops would be “coming out of Syria real soon”.
For America’s generals, more than 17 years of combat have served as a lesson in the limits of overwhelming force to end wars fuelled by sectarian feuds, unreliable allies and persistent government corruption. “Victory is sort [of] an elusive concept in that part of the world,” said Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland, who led troops over five tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. “Anyone who goes in and tries to achieve a decisive victory is going to come away disappointed.”
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis echoed that point in late November when he outlined an expanded role for US forces in preventing the return of Islamic State or a group like it in Syria.
“You need to do something about this mess now,” he told reporters. “Not just, you know, fight the military part of it and then say, ‘Good luck on the rest of it’.”
His remarks reflected a broader Pentagon consensus: In the absence of a clear outcome, winning for much of the US military’s top brass has come to be synonymous with staying put. These days, senior officers talk about “infinite war”.
“It’s not losing,” explained Air Force General Mike Holmes in a speech earlier this year. “It’s staying in the game and … pursuing your objectives.”
The Army recently rewrote its primary war-fighting doctrine to account for the long stretch of fighting without victory since September 11. “The win was too absolute,” said Lieutenant General Michael Lundy of the old document. “We concluded winning is more of a continuum.”
The tension between the White House and the military over how and when to end America’s wars is not entirely new. To the frustration of his generals, president Barack Obama announced plans in 2014 to pull all US combat forces out of Afghanistan by the end of his presidency.
“Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them,” he said. “Yet this is how wars end in the 21st century.”
The decision drew heavy criticism from Republican lawmakers, and in 2016, with the Taliban expanding across Afghanistan, Obama decided to leave about 8,000 American troops in place.
Trump came to office promising to give the Pentagon a free hand to unleash the full force of US firepower. And since taking office, Trump has boosted air strikes in Iraq and Syria, a key element in the military’s campaign to help its proxies rout Islamic State from its strongholds.
But the attacks haven’t addressed the sectarian rivalries that created Islamic State. In some instances they have inadvertently allowed forces allied with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iranian-backed militias to extend their influence.
“Who is winning in Syria?” Senator Lindsey Graham asked the commander of US forces in the Middle East last month when he appeared before lawmakers.
“Is our policy still that Assad must go?” Graham continued.
Votel indicated that he wasn’t sure.
“Well, if you don’t know, I doubt if anybody knows, because this is your job,” an exasperated Graham said.
The exchange offered a rare window into the military’s frustration. And it called to mind McMaster’s oft-repeated insistence before entering the White House that simply targeting enemies was not a war-winning strategy, but the combat equivalent of, he said, “George Costanza in Seinfeld, ‘leave on an up note’ – just go in, do a lot of damage, and leave”.
A similar quandary for Trump has played out in Afghanistan, where US air strikes have increased sevenfold to rates not seen since the earliest days of the war. The bombing there has arrested the Afghan government’s battlefield losses but so far seems unlikely to alter the course of the war.
The problem isn’t a lack of military firepower, but the weak Afghan government, the persistence of safe havens in Pakistan and a Taliban movement that is fighting for its villages on terrain it knows intimately.
In the absence of a campaign of annihilation, the struggle to define victory in America’s never-ending wars has spanned three administrations.
Near the end of President George W. Bush’s administration, Eliot Cohen recalled journeying to the basement of the Pentagon where a senior intelligence officer presented him with binders full of data that he and his staff had compiled to track US progress in Afghanistan for the defence secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and others.
“Are we winning?” Cohen, then a top aide to the secretary of state, recalled asking.
The colonel looked down at the mountain of reports. “I have no idea, sir,” he replied.
Now in Kabul, senior US officials track more than 700 benchmarks designed to capture the progress of the Afghan government and its security forces. US officials said the Afghans have hit 97 per cent of these goals this year. More quietly they often debate whether they are even tracking the right things.