On Wednesday, NBC News reported an interesting meeting between President Trump and senior military advisers.
Trump apparently contrasted U.S. strategy in Afghanistan with the anecdote of a New York restaurant consultant.
That consultant had a New York restaurant owner close his establishment for a year. After 12 months, however, the consultant's only advice was that the restaurant needed a bigger kitchen. Trump stated that the restaurant owner would have been better off talking to the waiters. As NBC reports, Trump "said the tendency is to assume if someone isn't a three-star general he doesn't know what he's talking about, and that in his own experience in business talking to low-ranking workers has gotten him better outcomes."
Of course, this wasn't a terribly clever anecdote to use with three-star or four-star U.S. Military leaders. They detest civilian efforts to micromanage operational strategy. They think they know better, and most of the time they do.
But not always. I think Trump deserves some sympathy here.
First off, three caveats. Trump's apparent bad-mouthing of the U.S. commanding general in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, is unfair and immoral. If the president has a problem with his commander, he should replace him. Not undermine him. Second, Trump's craving for Afghanistan's mineral wealth is as idiotic as his craving for Iraqi oil.
Of course, I'm assuming here that Trump has given direction about what he wants to achieve in Afghanistan, and perhaps that isn't even true.
That said, as I wrote in June, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is manifestly confused. Are we there to impose military defeat on the Taliban, the Islamic State, and associated groups like the Haqqani network, and advance the territorial power of the government in Kabul?
Or are we in Afghanistan to preserve the Kabul government's control over key urban centers, and effectively cede rural areas to provincial politics?
Are we in Afghanistan simply to confront that nation's rising ISIS threat? In the short term, are we willing to cut a deal with the Taliban?
Obviously Trump doesn't feel he has a lot of good options. As such, he has the absolute right to shake up his senior military advisers.
In that regard, I believe Trump's waiter vs. consultant/junior officer vs. flag officer contrast is justifiable. Trump should fly to Kabul, and meet junior commissioned and non-commissioned officers; captains, lieutenants, and staff sergeants. Doing so would give Trump a chance to hear from those on the parapets. He should do the same in Washington with my Afghanistan-veteran friends and strategists, Vince Tumminello and Ben Collins.
It's easy to regard Trump's comments as those of a simpleton who sees war as a continuation of business by other means. But again, I think that's unfair. For one, it's hypocritical in the context of how the media adorned former President Barack Obama with praise for his 2009 announcement of a surge in Afghanistan. That surge was self-destructive in that it was joined to a specific timeline for U.S. withdrawal. The Taliban simply waited Obama out.
More importantly, military leaders do not deserve absolute power to dictate strategy without direction.
Former President George W. Bush learned this truth the hard way. It was not until late 2006 that Bush decided to accept advice from outside the military about how to address the tsunami of violence afflicting Iraqi politics. The Joint Chiefs wanted to either withdraw or keep doing the same thing. Instead, Bush listened to Frederick Kagan and a former U.S. general, Jack Keane, and approved the surge. Along with the Anbar-awakening, that surge dramatically reduced the violence. It also created space for political coalescence in Baghdad, which Obama later squandered by hastily withdrawing in 2011.
Regardless, this is a deadly serious issue. Approximately 2,300 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan and many more wounded. And we're still fighting there: two U.S. soldiers were killed in action on Wednesday.
Trump is right to demand a strategy that matches U.S. interests to strategic feasibility.