President Donald Trump met Tuesday with four troops who served in Afghanistan to get their ideas on the next steps in the war even as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis prepares to submit a revised strategy that could involve deploying 3,000 to 5,000 more service members.
Ahead of a White House lunch, Trump said that he and Vice President Mike Pence would be hearing from "four great soldiers who spent a lot of time in Afghanistan" to ask them "what you think, your views. These are people on the ground -- know it probably better than anybody."
"And we're going to be getting some ideas because we've been there -- it's our longest war -- we've been there for many years. We've been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we've been there for 17 years, how it's going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas," Trump said.
"I've heard plenty of ideas from a lot of people, but I want to hear it from the people on the ground," Trump said in referring to Army First Sgt. Michael Wagner, Army Master Sgt. Zachary Bowman, Army Master Sgt. Henry Adames and Air Force Maj. Eric Birch.
The White House meeting came as Mattis, who has been delegated authority by Trump to set troop levels in Afghanistan, readied a strategy that was expected to bolster the current train, advise and assist role of U.S. troops and focus on increased air support.
Mattis promised that he would deliver a plan in mid-July, and last Friday said he would stick to that timeframe, but he's also had to consider the late submission of a soldier-of-fortune option backed by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law.
On the Saturday morning of July 8, Bannon reportedly went to the Pentagon and presented the mercenary plan to Mattis that came from Erik Prince, founder of the security firm Blackwater Worldwide, and Stephen Feinberg, billionaire owner of the military contractor DynCorp International.
Mattis "listened politely" to Bannon's pitch, but made clear that the Prince-Feinberg option would not be included in the new strategy he was working on with Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House National Security Adviser, according to The New York Times.
In a May 31 op-ed for the Wall St. Journal, Prince outlined his plan that would involve an "American viceroy" and outsourcing much of the mission now performed by U.S. and coalition troops to a private army of mercenaries. As Prince saw it, the private army could eventually perform better, since they would remain in Afghanistan indefinitely and not be limited by the rotations of the U.S. force.
The American viceroy would also have a long-term presence and "would lead all U.S. government and coalition efforts -- including command, budget, policy, promotion and contracting -- and report directly to the president," Prince said.
He likened the role to that of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Japan after World War II. He did not mention that the Japanese submitted to MacArthur because his role was sanctioned by Emperor Hirohito.
The viceroy would also operate under much more relaxed rules of engagement, Prince said. "Troops fighting for their lives should not have to ask a lawyer sitting in air conditioning 500 miles away for permission to drop a bomb," he said.
At a session with Pentagon reporters last Friday, Mattis confirmed that he had heard out Bannon on Prince's plan, but said it was only one of a number of viewpoints he has considered.
"I listen to everybody who's got an idea that I think I might find value from, and there [are] themes consistent from a number of people, a number of advisers, and there's things that we will incorporate and there's things we won't," Mattis said. "Right now, I don't want to go any deeper than that."
Drawing up a new strategy for Afghanistan was especially difficult after the long U.S. involvement, Mattis said.
"This is hard, and there's a reason we got into some wars in our nation's history and didn't know how to end them," he said. "This is hard work and, if anyone else says otherwise, [he] is either somebody who didn't have to deal with it or deal with the consequences of the decisions of it."
Mattis new strategy was being readied as the U.S. military reported small signs of progress under the old strategy.
Last week, Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman, said that U.S. forces had killed Abu Sayed, leader of the ISIS offshoot known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or IS-K, in a raid in Afghanistan's Kunar province.
"The raid also killed other IS-K members and will significantly disrupt the terror group's plans to expand its presence in Afghanistan," White said in a statement.
On Monday, the Marines of Task Force Southwest reported that the Afghan National Defense Security Forces had retaken from the Taliban the Nawa district center just south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah in southwestern Helmand province.
Marine Maj. Kendra Motz of Task Force Southwest said in a statement that U.S. F-16s and AH-64 Apache gunships supported the Afghan attack aimed at relieving pressure on Lashkar Gah, which the Taliban have been trying to take for nearly a year.
"So far during this operation we have seen some significant gains in leadership and maneuver from the Ministry of Interior forces, particularly the Afghan Border and National Police," said Col. Matthew Reid, deputy commander of Task Force Southwest. "The vast majority of the ABP officers are from Helmand, many from Nawa, and they are aggressively fighting to clear insurgents from Nawa district."
Also on Monday, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan released a report showing that civilians killed in the war reached a record high in the first six months of 2017.
"A total of 1,662 civilian deaths were confirmed between 1 January and 30 June -- an increase of two per cent over the same period last year," UNAMA said in the report.
"The human cost of this terrible conflict in Afghanistan -- loss of life, destruction and immense suffering -- is far too high," said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary General's Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA said.
"The continued use of indiscriminate, disproportionate and illegal improvised explosive devices is particularly appalling and must immediately stop," Yamamoto said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.