After years of deriding the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a “complete waste,” President Donald Trump on Monday explained why he now believes it is in the United States’ interest to remain committed to the South Asian country.
In an evening address from a military base outside Washington, Trump unveiled, without going into detail, a “condition-based approach” to defeating terrorism in the country and said the United States will no longer use its military to construct democracies or rebuild other countries in its own image.
His goal, he said, is to stop the re-emergence of havens for terrorists to threaten America and make sure they do not get their hands on nuclear weapons.
“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump told about 2,000 service members at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. “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. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
US Troop Levels
The president has approved up to 4,000 more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to sources here speaking on condition they not be named.
Currently, there are about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Most are advising Afghan forces, though some are carrying out counterterrorism operations against groups such as the Taliban or the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate.
That number is down significantly from the height of former President Barack Obama’s troop surge, which saw nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in August 2010.
Immediately following the president’s speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement saying: “We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions. We look to the international community, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbors, to join us in supporting an Afghan peace process.”
Trump, in his address, however, very publicly and directly put Pakistan on notice.
“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists they are fighting. But that will have to change and that will change immediately,” Trump vowed.
The president’s address received mixed initial reviews.
“The president failed to define the goals or objectives that would direct the actions of the whole of government approach. The only thing he demonstrated was that his original belief that you can rip troops out of a combat zone without considering the fallout of that action was, in fact, wrong,” said Moira Whelan, a partner of BlueDot Strategies and former senior State Department official.
“Trump repealed his original Afghanistan position, but he failed to replace it with something that will make America safer,” Whelan told VOA.
Trump: Continued US Presence in Afghanistan, Increased Pressure on Pakistan
Longest US War
The conflict in Afghanistan, with a factionalized unity government riddled with systemic corruption, has dragged on for 16 years — becoming the longest U.S. war ever — since the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the United States.
Expressing frustration, Trump informed Afghanistan that the commitment by the United States is not unlimited and America’s support not a blank check.
The American people, he warned, expect “to see real reforms and real results.”
Trump’s policy announcement follows a months-long review.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, at Trump’s request, spoke to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani Monday ahead of the address.
Tillerson had spoken over the phone with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, according to the State Department, about how the United States would like to work with each country to stabilize South Asia through a new, integrated regional strategy.
U.S. generals advised Trump to send several thousand more troops to break the stalemate and retake territory from the Taliban, which controls nearly half the country. But Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” foreign policy, has been reluctant to commit more resources to the country.
Following the president’s Monday night speech, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Trump’s strategic guidance came after a rigorous interagency review.
“I have directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy,” Mattis said in a statement. “I will be in consultation with the secretary-general of NATO and our allies -- several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers. Together, we will assist the Afghan security forces to destroy the terrorist hub.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg expressed support for Trump’s strategy in a statement Tuesday, saying the alliance aims to ensure Afghanistan cannot be a terrorist sanctuary.
“We encourage all Afghans to work towards a negotiated political settlement and a sustainable peace,” Stoltenberg said.”At the same time, we urge all countries in the region to do their utmost to shut down sanctuaries for extremist groups, support peace and reconciliation, and contribute to a stable and secure Afghanistan.”
Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a defense liaison at the Afghan embassy in Washington, told VOA he welcomes the renewed U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.
“We think this will ultimately take us to what we want in the end -- allowing no safe haven for terrorists, helping the Afghan government stand on its own feet and putting more pressure on Pakistan,” he said.
Katawazai also praised Trump’s decision to not announce withdrawal deadlines.
“Deadlines were problematic for Afghanistan, because whenever there were deadlines given, the enemies, the Taliban, and of course their supporters in rival countries, they increased their activities and thought the U.S. would probably withdraw and there would be a gap created,” he said.
A spokesperson for India’s Ministry for External Affairs also welcomed Trump’s pledge to confront “issues of safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists.”
There was no immediate public reaction from Pakistan’s government.
Pakistani Opposition leader Imran Khan criticized what he said was another instance of the United States blaming Pakistan for a decade of “deeply flawed and failed” U.S. policy on Afghanistan. Khan wrote in a series of Twitter posts that Pakistan has paid heavy human and economic costs and should “reject being made scapegoats for the policy failures of the U.S. and India.”
Retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis said he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, “when there were 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops.” He said he saw “firsthand that the insurgent and terrorist fighters cannot be militarily defeated.”
“Short of a return of major deployments of tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops, this is not a winnable war,” Davis told VOA. “No matter what the president said, this war flatly cannot be won militarily. To set a strategy dependent on militarily defeating the enemy is going to fail, just as surely as all other attempts have over the past 16 years.”
In Washington, Victor Beattie, Bill Gallo and Chris Hannas contributed to this report