Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster, along with General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and various field commanders, have yet to show any such capacity. Since Trump put them in, the principal theme of U.S. operations targeting ISIS, the Taliban, and other militant groups has been simply: more of the same, but not too much more. The overarching, if unacknowledged, premise of the nation’s military efforts remains what it has been ever since George W. Bush’s grandiose, post–September 11 dream of transforming the Islamic world collapsed: If we keep killing “terrorists” in sufficient numbers, the jihadist threat will eventually subside.
Every couple of years, the Pentagon markets some new initiative intended to show that it is engaged in something other than a crude war of attrition. The Trump administration’s recently declared new approach to waging the stalemated war in Afghanistan offers a case in point. In August, after months of internal deliberations, the Trump administration announced that it was bumping up the number of troops in Afghanistan to 11,000, an increase of roughly 3,000. In October, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Secretary Mattis detailed the administration’s vision–in reality, the generals’ vision—for the next phase of America’s longest-ever armed conflict. Heralding Mattis’s revised approach is a new set of alliterative buzzwords: “regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile, and sustain.” Put them together and you end up with R4+S. This might work to describe the model of a new pickup truck. But it’s not a strategy.