The president admitted: ‘My original instinct was to pull out’ but said he’d bowed to advice from officials, and claimed he’d take a much tougher line with Pakistan
22 August, 2017
Donald Trump has announced he will prolong the US military intervention in Afghanistan, which he once described as a “complete waste”, bowing to advice from his top officials to raise the stakes once more in the 16-year conflict.
In a televised address to troops at Fort Myer in Virginia, Trump said he was setting out a new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia. But he did not say how many more troops he would send, how long they would stay, or what their ultimate objective was.
Trump repeatedly presented his ideas for South Asia as a radical departure from the Obama administration, with a tighter focus on counter-terrorism.
“We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists,” he said. But the Fort Myer speech suggested that the tasks facing US soldiers and diplomats in the region would remain the same, attacking terrorist groups while trying to bolster the Afghan government’s own forces and trying to put pressure on Kabul and Islamabad to help more.
In his address, Trump made a virtue of avoiding details, saying he would not repeat what he presented as the Obama administration’s mistake of signalling plans to the nation’s enemies. Instead, key decisions would be taken by military commanders and determined by “conditions on the ground and not arbitrary timetables”.
However, the Trump White House has already given the Pentagon authority to deploy another 4,000 more troops to bolster the 8,400 there already and vice-president Mike Pence was reported to have told Congress that 3,900 extra soldiers would be sent.
In a separate statement, the defence secretary, James Mattis said he had ordered US military chiefs to “make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy” and that he would be talking to Nato 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,” Mattis said.
In another coordinated statement, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said the administration was making clear to the Taliban that they “will not win on the battlefield”, and that the US was ready to support peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban ‘without preconditions”. This, too, was the Obama administration’s policy.
The president admitted that escalating the US war in Afghanistan had not been his initial instinct when he came to office. Trump scarcely mentioned Afghanistan during last year’s election campaign, but prior to entering the presidential race, he had vociferously argued for withdrawal. So had his former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, who was fired on Friday after a fierce struggle in a divided White House.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump said.
He gave three reasons for continuing the US involvement in the Afghan war on the side of the Kabul government against the Taliban: to honour those American soldiers who had died there since 2001, to stop Afghanistan becoming a haven for terrorists once more and to help stabilise the South Asia region.
“Our nation must seek an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made,” Trump said.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” he added. “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists – including Isis and al-Qaida – would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11.”
“Thirdly and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense,” he said.
In practice, and as Trump conceded in his speech, much of the US effort will be dedicated to continuing to build up the Afghan security forces until they are able to fight the Taliban alone. The Obama administration had the same goal, and it remains a distant one.
The other break with the past is a tougher line against the Pakistani government. Groups like the Haqqani network, which is both terrorist and criminal, have long been based in tribal lands in western Pakistan. Persuading the Pakistani security services to cut them off was an objective of both the Bush and the Obama administrations, that was never achieved. Trump claimed he would succeed by being tougher on Islamabad.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said.
“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
“Terrorists who slaughter innocent people will find no glory in this life or the next. They are nothing but thugs, and criminals, and predators, and – that’s right – losers.”
The Afghan government was also come under more pressure to reform its military and its corruption-rife bureaucracy.
“Our support is not a blank cheque,” Trump said. “Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open.”
Efforts by previous administrations to pressure Kabul and Islamabad, foundered on Washington’s need for both governments to survive and to continue to cooperate in the fight against terrorist groups. That limited US leverage. It was not immediately clear from President Trump’s speech how he proposed to resolve that longstanding quandary.
As part of a regional approach, Trump said he would encourage India to play more of a role. However, he did not mention another, increasingly important player in Afghanistan, China.
Former officials and analysts also pointed out that the fear of a greater Indian presence in Afghanistan was the justification used by Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders to maintain backing for Afghan militants, as a buffer against Indian influence.
Josh Rovner, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University described the invitation to India to get more involved as “puzzling”, arguing it “may encourage Pakistan to invest more in armed groups.”
Barnett Rubin, a senior advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration called the speech: “An incoherent wish list unmoored in political reality or principle.”
Trump made one glaring factual error in the speech, referring to the Afghan leader, Ashraf Ghani, as prime minister, rather than president.
Rubin, now a senior fellow at New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation, argued the gaffe disproved Trump’s claim to have studied the problem deeply and showed “no understanding of the basis of the National Unity Government.”