Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in an exclusive interview Sunday with Breitbart News, discussed the administration’s foreign policy, from the war in Afghanistan to Iran.
On Afghanistan, he praised Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for delegating more decision-making authority back to commanders in the field than under the previous administration.
“We’re doing the same thing at Interior — on the front line, empowering our leaders — empowering our leaders on the front line to have more authority,” he said. “And General Mattis is doing the same in Afghanistan with our military.”
President Trump has approved a strategy that involves sending more than 3,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to bolster Afghan troops on the battlefield against the Taliban in order to force the Taliban back to the negotiation table.
It also includes giving U.S. troops more authority to target the Taliban. Under the Obama administration, U.S. troops could only strike them if they were within a certain distance of coalition or Afghan troops.
U.S. troops can also now advise Afghan troops at a level closer to the battlefield — the battalion and brigade levels. The Obama administration had pulled U.S. troops back to advising only at the very top levels, far away from the battlefield.
Once U.S. troops ended their combat mission in 2014, the Taliban made a comeback and now controls or contests territory where 36 percent of the population lives.
But Zinke, a retired Navy SEAL commander, also said, as the only cabinet member with a special operations background, that his approach to Afghanistan is slightly different from Mattis’s.
During the war, small teams of special operations forces have spent time in Afghanistan embedded in villages, empowering their local forces to keep the Taliban out.
“I come from a little different angle on it, I think in Afghanistan, making sure there’s an economy there, what is the economy, empower the tribes to push back against the Taliban, similar to how we did the counterinsurgency of years past,” Zinke said.
“Ultimately it’s up to Afghanistan and not the U.S. to provide for their security in the long term, but I’m comfortable with the direction we’re going,” he said.
The new strategy also entails putting more pressure on Pakistan to stop providing safe havens for the Taliban, which Zinke said is the right thing to do.
“Well the president is right to put pressure on a lot of different countries who have simply not done their share,” he said.
That approach applies to China, too, he said, shifting over to East Asia.
“We have an enormous role in leadership to play globally. But we can’t do it alone. And the president is absolutely correct in putting pressure on some of these countries who quite frankly have had a free pass,” he said.
“If China is going to be a great country, then China needs to act as a great country. And if they have influence on countries like North Korea, then I would like to see China, you know, be a great country and step up,” he said.
Zinke said President Trump is also right to be tougher on Iran, a country he said is dangerous in the long term, and today one of the largest sponsors of terrorism.
Iran supplied Iraqi insurgents with weapons to target U.S. troops during the Iraq War, in which Zinke served.
“As a former Navy commander, I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime, and I can tell you a lot of American kids didn’t come home as a direct result of the Iranian influence,” he said.