Trump vows to fight on in Afghanistan, offering few new details

Olivier Knox
Chief Washington Correspondent


After years of calling for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Trump tried late Monday to rally the country behind an open-ended commitment to plunging as many as 4,000 additional U.S. troops into what is now America’s longest war.

Trump acknowledged that Americans are “weary of war without victory” nearly 16 years after the conflict began. He promised that he shared their frustrations — even as he overrode them with imperatives he said he learned after taking office.

“My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump acknowledged in a rare prime-time speech near Arlington National Cemetery.

But “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum [that] terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida, would instantly fill,” giving them room to plot attacks like the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes, the president said.

He promised unprecedented pressure on nuclear-armed Pakistan to stop harboring extremist groups that target Afghan and U.S. forces, appealed to NATO to send more troops, and urged India to help with Afghanistan’s economic development.

“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America,” Trump said. “And we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us — or anywhere in the world, for that matter.”

Trump declined to say how many American troops would head to Afghanistan. But senior aides pointed to his decision in June to authorize Defense Secretary James Mattis to deploy as many as 3,900.

President Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Va., on Aug. 21. (Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts)

The president also declined to say how long the troops would stay, denouncing former President Barack Obama’s decision to pair a troop surge in late 2009 with a target withdrawal date. But Mattis has told Congress to expect an American military presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out,” Trump said. “I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”

The new deployments are expected to shoulder two main tasks: shore up Afghan security forces fighting the Taliban and carry out missions targeting terrorist groups like al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State.

The United States has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, part of an international force that is roughly 13,500 strong. Since former President George W. Bush unleashed U.S. military might against the Taliban on Oct. 7, 2001, some 2,400 Americans have died in the conflict and more than 20,000 have been wounded. Barack Obama surged tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan in 2009 but later drew frequent criticisms from Republicans, who accused him of focusing on withdrawing U.S. forces rather than defeating the Taliban. Obama aides said his administration’s main goal was to make local security forces self-sustaining in order to extricate the United States from a seemingly intractable conflict.

Trump salted his plea for strategic patience from the public with marked flourishes of impatience directed at his two predecessors, Pakistan, India, and the government of Afghanistan.

“America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check,” he said. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”

Aides declined to say precisely what action — or inaction — by Afghanistan’s government would lead Trump to revise his view on whether Kabul was a willing partner. Washington has been pushing its government to pursue democratic reforms and battle corruption since after the Taliban government fell.

Trump also bluntly warned Pakistan to mend its ways. That country has always been a half-hearted ally against extremism, tolerating U.S. drone strikes on terrorists while also harboring groups plotting attacks inside Afghanistan.

“No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials,” Trump declared. “It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.”

Earlier, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call arranged by the White House that Washington would use “persuasion, sometimes coercion” and suggested that pressure could come in the form of withholding U.S. aid.

Trump’s primetime address capped months of heated West Wing debates that pitted advisers advocating deeper involvement in Afghanistan against aides warning that Trump risks getting sucked into the kind of nation-building entanglement that he denounced during the 2016 presidential campaign. It also came after the departure of senior strategist Steve Bannon, the most forceful West Wing voice against escalating the conflict.

The president considered a range of options, from full withdrawal to significant escalation, and even one plan (which was never seriously in play) to replace troops with contractors under a “viceroy” figure.

Ahead of the speech, Vice President Mike Pence spoke by telephone to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke to the prime minister of Pakistan and the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and India.

Sen. Rand Paul, R.-Ky., a reliable critic of U.S. military interventions, came out against the troop increase even before Trump spoke.

“The mission in Afghanistan has lost its purpose, and I think it is a terrible idea to send any more troops into that war,” Paul said in a statement.

Trump spoke at the same base where Obama earlier this year told a military audience that politics should not drive a decision to send Americans into war.

“Sending you into harm’s way should be a last and not first resort. It should be compelled by the needs of our security and not our politics,” Obama said on Jan. 4.

Using his personal Twitter megaphone, the president has for years called for a complete withdrawal.

“Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA,” he tweeted in January 2013.

Trump faced no questions about Afghanistan at any of the three debates in which he faced off with his Democratic rival for the White House, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And he omitted the war from his major campaign speech about foreign policy in April 2016.

But a month earlier, at a debate with the other contenders for the GOP nomination, Trump had shown openness to a lasting commitment to Afghanistan.

“I think you have to stay in Afghanistan for a while, because of the fact that you’re right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and we have to protect that,” he said. “Nuclear weapons change the game.”

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