Mattis, Not Trump, Is Now in Charge of America's Military Might

The Department of Defense may send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. But the real news is who's ordering their deployment.
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Secretary of Defense James Mattis is saluted by a member of his U.S. Army helicopter crew as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters on April 24th, 2017, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis is saluted by a member of his U.S. Army helicopter crew as he arrives at Resolute Support headquarters on April 24th, 2017, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the Department of Defense (DOD) plans on sending an additional 4,000 American troops to positions across Afghanistan to shore up Afghan security forces against the country's vicious ISIS branch and resurgent Taliban. Though focused primarily on the "advise and assist" mission preferred by military commanders since the start of President Barack Obama's rocky troop drawdown, the new deployment would bring the total troop presence to more than 14,000—around the same number stationed in the country during the Bush-era build-up of late 2003.

The AP report is jarring, especially to a country already engaged in an expanding multinational military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But the real news isn't the deployment, but rather who gave the order to carry it out: Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

President Donald Trump is commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces, vested with decision-making powers thanks to Article II of the Constitution. But on Wednesday, one day before the AP broke the news of the impending mini-surge, Trump took the unusual step of vesting Mattis with the authority to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, a move the New York Times characterized as a "sharp break" from Obama's "micromanaging" of strategic decisions. (The Pentagon pushed back today against the AP report, asserting that Mattis "has made no decisions on a troop increase for Afghanistan.")

Earlier Wednesday, Mattis delivered an alarming assessment of the 16-year-old war in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee: "We are not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this as soon as possible." Though the secretary of defense pledged that he would brief lawmakers on a final strategy for bringing the Afghan war to a close, the Pentagon could announce its new troop deployments "as early as next week," according to the AP.

Trump appears to be abdicating his responsibilities as commander-in-chief.

The shift in authority and discretion from Trump in the White House to military leaders in the Pentagon is alarming, and not simply because nobody voted for Mattis or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford. Civilian control of the military has been ingrained in American political and military culture since George Washington resigned his military commission before serving as president. Americans certainly value military experience in presidential candidates, but the framers of the Constitution, in the DOD's own words, "did not want to emulate the European experience" out of fear of falling into an Anglo-American stratocracy.

Despite his campaign claim of "[knowing] more about ISIS than the generals do," Trump has ceded that civilian control inch by inch since his victory on Election Day. The president has appointed more generals or lieutenant generals to cabinet or other high-ranking executive positions (national security adviser H.R. McMaster, for example) since the end of World War II, pushing to relax the seven-year mandatory waiting period between military service and heading the DOD established by the National Security Act of 1947 so he could slot Mattis into his Pentagon office without a fuss from legislators. (The last time Congress granted such a waiver was for George Marshall.)

Surrounding himself with generals isn't necessarily a problem, but relinquishing his oversight of them certainly is. In April, Trump loosened restrictions on the airstrikes and special operations forces raids that came to define the Obama-era war on terror, empowering military decision-makers to rapidly plan and execute attacks on terror targets despite concerns over civilian casualties. The president had previously stated that he had given military leaders "full authorization" to take whatever steps necessary to carry out the global war on terror.

Trump appears to be abdicating his responsibilities as commander-in-chief—but why? The strange delegation of power may simply represent political expediency for a presidency clouded by scandal and preoccupied with fending off Federal Bureau of Investigation special counsel Robert Mueller. "The risk," as the Times put it, "is the president may become too detached from developments on the battlefield and may use this approach to distance himself from a decision that could be politically unpopular." It's worth noting that Trump's proxies once offered Ohio Governor John Kasich a vice presidency "in charge of foreign and domestic policy" during the 2016 campaign, so as to allow Trump to better focus on "making America great again." It's certainly possible that the leader of the free world simply doesn't have the patience for the minutiae of the global war on terror.

Increasing military control of America's geopolitical footprint in the world is dangerous, especially with Pentagon leaders having demonstrated their desire since Trump took office back in January to deploy "thousands" of U.S. troops to Afghanistan. But with such an unusual president occupying the constitutional mantle of commander-in-chief, it's perhaps not so surprising to see this unusual military arrangement—even if it runs counter to American military tradition.

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