The Trump administration is still sorting out “the big ideas” for a new Afghanistan strategy, beyond troop levels and other military details, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has said. “We’re close,” he said in an impromptu exchange with reporters at the Pentagon one day after President Donald Trump met with him and his military chiefs for a broad discussion that aides said touched on Afghanistan and other issues. The US has been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly 16 years, and as recently as June Mattis said “we are not winning.” Mattis told Sen John McCain at a hearing last month that he would have the Afghanistan strategy ready by mid-July. On Friday he was asked what is holding it up. “It just takes time,” he said. “It wasn’t that past presidents were dumb or anything else. This is hard work, so you’ve got to get it right. That’s all there is to it.” He also said it is vitally important to “get the big ideas right,” meaning to establish a consensus within the government on what problem Afghanistan poses and what policy goal is being pursued by committing US troops there. He called this “orders of magnitude” more difficult that deciding military tactics. “It’s easy only for the people who criticise it from the outside and who don’t carry the responsibility for integrating it altogether,” he said, referring to making diplomatic and economic elements a part of the overall strategy.
Although Mattis did not mention him yesterday, McCain is among the more vocal critics of the administration’s lack of an Afghan strategy. On Thursday, McCain mentioned his frustration on Afghanistan in a statement on the separate matter of the administration reportedly deciding to end a program to assist the Syrian opposition to President Bashar Assad. “Six months into this administration, there is still no new strategy for victory in Afghanistan, either,” McCain said.
“It is now mid-July, when the administration promised to deliver that strategy to Congress, and we are still waiting.” In his remarks at the Pentagon, Mattis revealed no details of the ongoing administration debate. He cast the Afghanistan problem in the context of past American wars, including those that did not end well such as Vietnam and those that still have not ended, such as Iraq. He said he wants to be sure there is administration agreement on the political goals as well as the military means. “I realise this probably looks easy, but it is not easy,” he said.