Deeper into the Afghan ‘Big Muddy’

President Trump’s reliance on generals as his principal strategic advisers – and his own limited understanding of the world – may lead deeper into the Afghan quagmire, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Impending choices by President Trump regarding the war in Afghanistan raise issues of national security decision-making in his presidency that in turn evoke pathologies of the past, with Trump’s personal habits threatening to make matters at least as bad as in the past.

President Donald Trump announces the selection of Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new National Security Adviser on Feb. 20, 2017. (Screen shot from

Struggles for influence within the White House are part of the story — as Jacob Heilbrunn discusses in connection with differences over Afghanistan policy between Stephen Bannon and national security adviser H. R. McMaster — although the story is not mainly about the clout of specific personalities. The disproportionate staffing of senior levels of Trump’s administration with military officers is another part, although the problem is not simply one of adopting a military rather than a civilian point of view.

Start with this President’s own qualities, and two of them in particular. One is his low knowledge and understanding of foreign relations and national security. It is doubtful that before he was elected he ever had an even halfway complex thought about Afghanistan.

The other is his exceedingly narrow channel for input of new information and insights. That channel seems to consist mainly of cable television news and random observations conveyed directly by people to whom for one reason or another Trump has taken a liking.

These characteristics imply that a thorough policy-making process — the array of meetings, memos, and consultations among all concerned parts of the government that formulates, vets, and evaluates options presented to the President — is at least as important in correcting for the deficiencies of this President as with any of his predecessors.

A full and orderly policy process is important with any president; such a process does not always yield the best result, but without such a process there will not be a raising of all the questions that need to be asked, nor discussion of all the considerations that need to be considered.

We have a big and still fairly recent example of what can happen when a president dispenses with a policy process before a major national security initiative: the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which was not preceded by any interagency meetings, options papers, discussions in the Situation Room, or anything else in which the question of whether launching that war was a good idea was on the agenda. We know how that decision turned out.

Trump’s heavy reliance on generals in staffing his administration does not by itself constitute a bias toward war. Military officers who have directly experienced the pain and downsides of wars are apt to be less inclined to start new ones than the sort of civilian, non-veteran chicken hawks who played major roles in George W. Bush’s administration. But what to do about an ongoing war such as Afghanistan is a different sort of question.

Military officers are conditioned to think in terms of using the military instrument more than other instruments of national policy. When given a mission, they are conditioned to pursue it to an outcome that can be described as successful completion of that mission. They are accustomed to taking as a given that completion of whatever was earlier defined as their mission is important for the national interest. They are not accustomed to questioning whether that mission really is important for U.S. national interests, or whether it still is important even if it was once deemed to be, or whether it is important enough to continue pursuing when weighed against collateral costs and competing priorities.

The Bigger Picture

It is those larger and fundamental sorts of questions that need to be applied today to policy on Afghanistan. This is not a matter of acceding to Bannon’s concerns about fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises. It instead is a matter of carefully assessing whether political and military events in that faraway graveyard of empires has enough impact on U.S. national security to warrant making America’s longest war even longer, let alone escalating that war.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired general, meets with troops stationed at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, April 21, 2017. (DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

A disturbing departure in the Trump administration from full and thorough policy processes comes to light in a Washington Post article that focuses on the  influence of one of Trump’s generals, Secretary of Defense James Mattis. According to the Post, Mattis regularly joins the President, sometimes more than once a week, for dinner at the White House residence, at times accompanied by a couple of Trump’s other favorite Marine generals, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly.

The Post reports that these “regular after-hours gatherings, focused on discussion of pressing national security matters” are “an indication of the free-flowing style that has characterized the administration’s deliberations on national security.”

This approach, the account continues, “has sometimes generated confusion, as it did after one such dinner in late January in which Trump approved new military actions in Yemen. The decision made outside the National Security Council process, including a tiny cohort of top officials and leaving only a light paper trail, produced weeks of uncertainty among military officials.”

The article cites, as another example of confusion resulting from the truncated and informal policy process, the public assertions about the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson heading north toward Korea when it really was sailing in the opposite direction.

The White House dinners raise memories of what became known, in the administration of Lyndon Johnson, as the Tuesday lunch. This weekly gathering, over a meal, of a handful of the President’s top national security officials was where Johnson made most of his decisions on managing the Vietnam War. This mechanism constituted another short-circuiting of a full and orderly policy process. The Tuesday lunch also became a prime case study for the psychologist Irving Janis when he developed his concept of groupthink and the decision-making pathologies it entails.

Lyndon Johnson ran a war differently from the way Donald Trump will ever run one, especially with regard to LBJ’s tendency to micromanage. But there is the same deficiency, due to truncation or end-running of a policy process, in not raising fundamental questions and not obtaining needed perspectives. Moreover, the deficiencies associated with groupthink are at least as likely to arise over Trump’s dinner table as they were over Johnson’s lunch table.

The Groupthink Trap 

As the concept was developed by Janis, groupthink involves not just commonality of thought but a dynamic unique to small groups in which maintaining cohesion of the group comes to take precedence over arriving at the best possible decision outcome. The present ingredients for comity and camaraderie dominating effectiveness are easy to see.

Trump needs his close association with his generals to have some of the dust of strength and selfless public service rub off on himself, or rather on his public image and his self-image. The generals, aware of their unique channel to this President, will try to avoid anything that risks breakage of that channel.

As Heilbrunn observes, the temptation to score anything that could be billed as a “win” may pull Trump into making America’s longer war even longer, as well as bigger. But presidential disdain for orderly ways of analyzing how best to advance America’s interests will be another factor increasing the odds that, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Trump will make greater use of military force than is in those interests and will prove to be more of an interventionist than was hoped or expected by those who focused on his retrenchment rhetoric during the campaign, or were turned off by what they regarded as Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

32 comments for “Deeper into the Afghan ‘Big Muddy’

  1. David
    May 13, 2017 at 16:24

    “Welcome to my web,” said the spider to the fly.

  2. Herman
    May 13, 2017 at 08:44

    When wars are away from our shores, when they are fought with weapons that cause great harm to the targets and little to the users, when the “others” are suffering and dying, only the empathetic few see it as much more than entertainment and they, the few, are kept outside the circle of deciders. I suspect many of the followers of Consortium are among those who feel for the victims. Asking and answering questions like why are we in Afghanistan or why are we so hell bent on provoking Russia are not going to be asked at Trump’s dinner parties. Grassroots rebellion? The only answer but forming and sustaining a movement to address our own insanity and complicity is a very high mountain to climb.

  3. ADL
    May 12, 2017 at 14:56

    “Start with this President’s own qualities, and two of them in particular. One is his low knowledge and understanding of foreign relations and national security. It is doubtful that before he was elected he ever had an even halfway complex thought about Afghanistan.
    The other is his exceedingly narrow channel for input of new information and insights. That channel seems to consist mainly of cable television news and random observations conveyed directly by people to whom for one reason or another Trump has taken a liking.”

    Pretty much says it all. Not much chance of success when you start from ignorance, and proceed by informing yourself via ‘Fox and Friends”.

    2 excellent articles from Tom Dispatch, one by Andrew Bacevich, and another by Danny Sjursen which I attached, give insight into ‘trusting the generals’.

    • john wilson
      May 13, 2017 at 05:24

      I wonder if Trump watches the RT television station? Over here in the UK its broadcast on normal terrestrial television and is free to watch. A great many people over here now watch RT for their news input and the station is now very popular. Do you know if RT is available in the states and is it free to watch? I can’t imagine the deep state allowing it to be available free as it is in the UK.

  4. susan sunflower
    May 12, 2017 at 13:31

    From Time Magazine interview: On why he struck Syria
    I think we have to be a strong nation. I think we were being laughed at by the world. They’re not laughing anymore. When I saw that, I thought it was incredible. And then he called them child actors, and that was even, that was just a terrible disrespect.

    (The subtext of this new “surge” in Afghanistan is — once again — renewed intention by the Afghans to negotiate a peace with the Taliban — see also Syria … In American cosmology, Peace = defeat … I’m guessing Victory = Annihilation )

    for your amusement, from McSweeney’s h/t Marc Lynch (yes, it’s humor)

  5. Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
    May 12, 2017 at 12:33

    I am not a fan on anybody in the US government (past or present) but will say this. How well did that formal normal process serve America in the past?! The US Foreign Policy seems to be nothing more than a series of “screw ups” because of unintended consequences……How many times have we heard that before?!

    Regarding the Group Think, the American Culture itself is based completely on “Political Correctness” and that is a very large form of “Group Think”. Most Americans, the very vast majority, go along with the prevailing “Narrative” because it is safer and politically correct……That, my friends, is a “Group Think”…………no wonder you end up with the same thing in any part of America including D,C. and inside the White House…………Even the Republicans and Democrats in congress do the same thing but in a chess game form about wining elections by fooling the ignorant public…………

    • Bill Bodden
      May 12, 2017 at 14:08

      I’m not sure “group think” is the right term. Perhaps, “group believe” would be more accurate. “Think” implies giving some thought to a topic and considering possible pros and cons. “Believe” suggests acceptance of an opinion. After the crime against humanity in Iraq was underway “everyone in uniform is a hero” became one of the nation’s mantras. Clearly, no one echoing that statement gave it the slightest thought. The Army and the Air Force had hundreds of their personnel in jails for committing crimes. The Navy and the Marines likewise had many people in their brigs. These four branches of our war department had many rapists and other sexual predators running loose who should have been in jail but weren’t because people with higher rank covered up for them. They all wore uniforms. So were they heroes?

  6. exiled off mainstreet
    May 12, 2017 at 11:32

    George Aiken’s advice on Viet Nam is still cogent here: declare we’ve won and get out.

  7. Drew Hunkins
    May 12, 2017 at 10:51

    Sorry to be off topic but I just had to offer a quick lament on how CommonDreams is really starting to swallow the “Moscow interfered with our election” hogwash. A few mos ago CD was much more skeptical on this matter, now the editorial line seems to be leaning toward the Rachel Maddows et. al. incessant Russophobia.

    It’s irritating, frustrating beyond belief, and a bit terrifying to see an otherwise progressive-populist outlet peddle this drivel.

    • exiled off mainstreet
      May 12, 2017 at 11:33

      They all seem to be jumping the fascist nihilist shark.

      • akech
        May 12, 2017 at 18:48

        They are getting paid!

  8. Brian
    May 12, 2017 at 10:33

    Mar 22, 2017 Troops Are Awakening to The Deception

    It seems as if none of the other outlets want to report on the fact that troops are awakening to the mass deception.

  9. Brian
    May 12, 2017 at 10:26

    Jan 9, 2015 Opium Production in Afghanistan Sets Record – American Soldiers Helping Heroin Sales

    June 10, 2014 Drug War? American Troops Are Protecting Afghan Opium

    U.S. Occupation Leads to All-Time High Heroin Production

    • Skip Scott
      May 12, 2017 at 17:10

      The neocons plan for population control.

  10. Joe Tedesky
    May 12, 2017 at 10:24

    Vijay Prashad over at counterpunch writes about the downsized State Dept. versus the up sized Pentagon.

    Prashad talks about a State Dept. with 200 positions of State left vacant with a 29 billion dollar budget, whereas the Pentagon gets 700 billion dollars and all the weapons and manpower it requires to fight unruly bands of jihadist.

    Statesmanship is being sidetracked by the Military Industrial Complex at an alarming rate, but why should this come as no surprise. With a volunteer army, supplemented by civilian contractors, the American public has little skin in the game. To the American public wars are a far off adventure for somebody else to worry about. Rightfully so, the American people are more concerned about domestic affairs. The conservative minded citizen is threatened by undocumented migrant workers and throughly disturbed that Muslim influence will ruin their communities and American way of life. The pseudo liberal of our nation are more into identity politics and bathrooms, and their right to do with their bodies what they want, like having an abortion. Nothing wrong with either of these groups worries about their lives in the U.S. of A., but nearly a bump in the road when it comes to being overly heart burdened over any far away battle.

    Read Paul Craig Roberts 5/11/17 where he labors over a detached American public, who isn’t even aware that Russia and China are preparing for a U.S. First Strike Nuclear attack.

    • ADL
      May 12, 2017 at 15:07

      Exactly. Again somehow someway people actually believed the nonsense Trump spewed during the campaign as knowledge, or intent.
      In practice Trump in 100 days has implemented a rudderless State Dept headed up by Exxon, and his Son in Law, both completely totally lacking on knowledge or experience. And staffing cuts that cripple any possible effectiveness.
      Huh – we don’t need no stinkin State Dept, we don’t need no diplomacy.

      • Joe Tedesky
        May 12, 2017 at 15:50

        Although I feel what you feel ADL, I’m done with the could have should have with this past election. Let’s be honest, the American voter was left with little choice to getting to a place we Americans could all feel good about. Yes, Trump is bad, but I’m still of the opinion that Hillary would not have been any better, possibly even worst…who knows? We are here now, and yet we are still doomed when you consider that if we dump Trump we get Pence. As Trump would tweet “so sad”.

        • Skip Scott
          May 12, 2017 at 17:08

          Hi Joe-

          I posted this once before, in some ways it’s become my anthem. I know you’re a musician, maybe you’ll like it.

          • Joe Tedesky
            May 12, 2017 at 19:39

            I just finished purchasing ‘Who Woulda Thunk It’ by Greg Brown and it is groovy. Thanks Skip somehow I missed this guy, and he ain’t young….where was I? Listen to Brown’s ‘Trump Can’t Have That’…it’s cool, I’d like to supply his percussion on this one because on the YouTube version I listened too there wasn’t any percussion.

            In Seattle a couple years ago, I was entertained by a trio who had a woman playing the broom handle wash tub for bass, oh she also wore work gloves…so cool, that raw melody against a strumming accompaniment is where country and rhythm & blues in American music connect.

            Greg Brown’s songs could go a lot of different directions in the genre categories, and that is solid stuff in the music business….and now Sinatra does Brown, you get the idea even with the dead Chairman with ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ used in my example. Thanks again Skip….Joe

          • Skip Scott
            May 12, 2017 at 20:09

            Hi Joe-

            Glad you like him. He is a great song writer. Check out “Going Driftless”. It is a bunch of Greg Brown tunes done by other artists. Really great stuff.

          • Joe Tedesky
            May 12, 2017 at 20:11

            ‘Quiet words of wisdom drown out by tv & more’ yeah ‘I Want My Country Back’ is interesting in its lyric, not what one might expect from the song title. A certain depth to a simple phraseology. Thanks again for the Greg Brown intro….Joe

        • ADL
          May 12, 2017 at 17:40

          Joe I agree – which is why I did not use hypotheticals of ‘Hilary would have been worse’, or ‘Hilary would have been better’. I am past the election and focusing on our current horrific state of affairs. I wrote ‘campaign’ only because people keep referencing ‘what Trump said’, as if he is actually was being honest or meant it instead of him being the proven ignorant person and pathological liar we can document. Every time he opens his mouth. What Trump says, or said, is meaningless.

          When Robert or others reference Trump saying he is going to reset relations with Russia, or get out of Syrian War, how and why would you possibly believe that? And debate it, and analyze it? I am actually not questioning Trump so much as those who take him as a honest broker, a knowledgeable person, even someone with a plan/s. What are you basing that on?? Certainly not the record.
          I am not sure how you can compare our present situation to any other possible Prez candidate, or past President, and say that it could be worse?

          In fact I was just echoing what Paul said in his article. As Paul writes: when you have a leader with zero prior knowledge or interest, followed by no process for gaining intelligence or options – it is only by pure random luck that anything positive can result. The chance of any good decisions coming from T are equal to hitting the lotto.

          And echoing Heilbrunn.
          “As Heilbrunn observes, the temptation to score anything that could be billed as a “win” may pull Trump into making America’s longer war even longer, as well as bigger. But presidential disdain for orderly ways of analyzing how best to advance America’s interests will be another factor increasing the odds that, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Trump will make greater use of military force than is in those interests’.

          Case in point the victory celebration by R’s and T over the ‘win’ of the House passing their ridiculous AHCA. A textbook example of government now become Reality TV.

          • Joe Tedesky
            May 12, 2017 at 18:53

            I’m trying really hard to sit this one out, but Trump is everywhere. While Russia and China are preparing their people for a nuclear war, our Presudent is having a war with Late Night Tv Hosts.

            No question Hillary is still not to be missed, but where are Americans to turn to. I don’t know it’s all being spun so bad, and fake news is thrown around too much, as I’m getting burnt out from it all.

            I think the nuclear warning is ten minutes, I’ll be okay.

      • Bill Bodden
        May 12, 2017 at 19:52

        Exactly. Again somehow someway people actually believed the nonsense Trump spewed during the campaign as knowledge, or intent.

        Anyone with a basic knowledge of what is right and what is wrong and who was paying attention to what Trump was saying and was said about him should have known he would be trouble. His only saving grace was that he was probably less of a hazard than Hillary; although, given time he may prove there will be no difference in the end.

    • Chris Chuba
      May 12, 2017 at 15:20

      Don’t cry over the State Dept budget. It does more harm than good. They fund trouble making NGO’s, military aid, and color revolutions. Why would actual diplomats really need to have a budget that is 2/3 the size of the entire Russian Defense budget?

      • Joe Tedesky
        May 12, 2017 at 15:55

        Oh trust me I’m not crying over our State Dept., if that’s what you want to call it. I was just pointing out the disparity between the two budgets. You must admit the Pentagon gets a huge piece of the pie, over what the State Dept. gets. I think this budget difference, plus the lack of a good State Dept. as you pointed out Chris, is a fine example of where our governments head is at….not a very good place indeed.

  11. Brian
    May 12, 2017 at 10:23

    December 3, 1993 The CIA Drug ConnectionIs as Old as the Agency

    LONDON— Recent news item: The Justice Department is investigating allegations that officers of a special Venezuelan anti-drug unit funded by the CIA smuggled more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine into the United States with the knowledge of CIA officials – despite protests by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the organization responsible for enforcing U.S. drug laws

  12. Chris Chuba
    May 12, 2017 at 10:05

    He will likely experience a greater failure than Obama and possibly even GWB. I was stunned by his reckless bombing of Syria because it showed that our Generals are not as cautious and deliberate as some had predicted. ‘Pride comes before a fall’ and if we kick the tiny state of Yemen because we see it as an easy target I believe that could very well be our undoing. I believe we will offend the one who wrote those words.

    • Dr. Ip
      May 12, 2017 at 10:54

      Beware the Ides of March was the warning Caesar was given. He didn’t listen – suffered the consequences.
      7 Days in May was the warning that Kennedy got. He heeded it to a certain extent, but in the end, they got him anyway.
      Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned Trump that Intelligence officials “have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you” (

      If Trump really wants to consolidate his power over the Deep State, he must follow the Lenin playbook:
      In addition to following popular demands, Lenin also based his regime on terror and suppression of opposition. Lenin did this by:
      Shutting down oppositional press
      Arresting and outlawing the Kadets, who had dominated the Constituent Assembly
      Arresting right-winged Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries
      Establishing the CHEKA in December 1917
      Class warfare against burzhui (bourgeoisie)
      Replacing judicial system with revolutionary justice (arbitrary and violent)
      Arresting and execution of civil servants

      Putting this into terms that we can all understand:
      Control the media
      Get rid of political activists of all stripes, especially the ones inside your own party
      Gain control of the secret services (the killers in the Intelligence agencies)
      Initiate class warfare against the bankers and corporations (from the right, to satiate the dreams of the foot-soldiers)
      Replace the judiciary with your own people (everyone does this anyway)
      Arrest and execute anyone in the government who opposes you (traitors are easy to find, and Reality TV trials would get hyper-fantastic ratings!)

      After all the heavy lifting is done, smile and wait for a new Stalin to dance on your grave.

      • Bill Bodden
        May 12, 2017 at 13:55

        If Trump really wants to consolidate his power over the Deep State, he must follow the Lenin playbook:

        Lenin? Who’s this Lenin guy? Steve? Jared? Reince? Sean? Do any of you guys know who he is?

        • Peter Loeb
          May 14, 2017 at 07:29


          Paul Pillar’s analysis provides an exceptional insight
          about what is and what is not going on in the decisions
          of this Administration.

          As a longtime participant in the process, Pillar is intimately
          familiar with its workings, its advantages. It should
          be pointed out that with with process and more
          process, the decisions reached in the end were often
          far from admirable! (Take Pillar’s 28 years of service
          as a processor back in time.)

          If anything, the should have been more focus on the
          decisions themselves, the reason for the deaths of
          so many abroad.

          A recent film about two soldiers fighting THEM sounds
          from excerpts more like a hunting expedition in which
          the (implied) superior Americans , the “us”, takes joy
          in shooting down inferior “thems”. “I got him!”
          shouts one soldier in glee, as though it were
          not real people whose deaths lives were shortened.
          American audiences are supposed to cheer on this
          kind of aberrant behavior one can suppose.

          I recently heard a description of American trainers
          versus “the belligerents”, “them”, the Taliban.
          In fact it is the US and “allies” who are the belligerents.
          Whatever may be the horrors of the Taliban, they
          actually live there.

          None of the above remarks apply to process, memos,
          reports, etc.

          —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

      • john wilson
        May 13, 2017 at 05:12

        What opposition press, Dr ip ? The American press is already an organ of the state, all Trump has to do is make friends with them and he has it made.

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