What is instead wrong about the current president’s approach is that it loses sight of the principle that militarily achieving certain things on the ground is a means, not an end. Trump’s approach fails to acknowledge the need for a military expedition to have a clear objective that is not defined in a circular, self-referential way solely in military terms. It fails to acknowledge not only the need for careful assessment of what can be achieved with military force but also whether such achievement is worth whatever costs are entailed, bearing in mind the full range of U.S. interests that may be at stake, including alternative purposes to which scarce national resources might be put. That last topic gets squarely to questions of troop levels in foreign lands. And it is a topic that the military should not be expected to try to answer on its own.
The aforementioned issues are especially acute regarding Afghanistan, where U.S. forces have been engaged in war for more than 15 years. There are big unanswered questions about what is achievable, and about what would be achievable with a few thousand more U.S. troops, that could not be achieved with the 100,000 troops the United States formerly had there. There are even bigger unanswered questions about what difference to U.S. interests would be made by some turning of the military situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Being stuck in history—9/11 and all that—doesn’t answer those questions. If it’s terrorist safe havens we’re worried about, there is nothing unique about Afghanistan today.
If officers are not given a clear mission, then they grab whatever bits and pieces from the political discourse can reasonably be construed as a mission. Or, they in effect construct their own mission, defined to involve some sort of vanquishing of an adversary’s forces. And U.S. officers will request the troops and other resources they believe they need to accomplish the mission, regardless of how shakily defined that mission is.
This is often a prescription for escalation. In a situation like Afghanistan, it is a prescription for endless perpetuation of involvement in a conflict.
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