Trump arrived at his new strategy over the course of several meetings of the NSC: in the White House Situation Room, at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and at the presidential retreat of Camp David in Maryland. It was at Camp David, on Friday, that Trump made his decision. He had pulled Mike Pence away a day early from the vice president’s foreign trip to join the meeting. The other principals, including Defense secretary James Mattis, secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security adviser H. R. McMaster, CIA director Mike Pompeo, Joint Chiefs chairman Joseph Dunford, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, had said their piece in favor of more troops. Only Attorney General Jeff Sessions was reluctant to support an increase, arguing that Trump’s campaign promise not to escalate foreign wars was important.
The president may have been spiritually with Sessions and his now ousted chief strategist Steve Bannon (who wanted a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan). But I’m told neither that idea nor the proposal Bannon was pushing near the end of his White House tenure—a privatized war, as proposed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince—was ever seriously considered by his aides. Bannon had already been fired by the time the NSC assembled at Camp David on Friday. Prince, Politico reported, had been “blocked at the last minute” by McMaster from attending the final meeting.