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Trump Sets U.S. Strategy for Afghan War

The New York Times logo The New York Times 8/22/2017 By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and MARK LANDLER
President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan. © AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster President Donald Trump speaks at Fort Myer in Arlington Va., Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, during a Presidential Address to the Nation about a strategy he believes will best position the U.S. to eventually declare victory in Afghanistan.

WASHINGTON — President Trump put forward on Monday a long-awaited strategy for resolving the nearly 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, but he failed to specify either the number of troops that would be committed, or the conditions by which he would judge the success of their mission there.

In a nationally televised prime-time speech to troops at Fort Myer, Va., Mr. Trump said there would be no “blank check” for the American presence in Afghanistan. But in announcing his plan, Mr. Trump embraced deepened American involvement in a military mission that has bedeviled his predecessors and that he once called futile.

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Mr. Trump said. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office — in other words, when you’re president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle.”

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Mr. Trump campaigned for president promising to extricate the United States from foreign conflicts, and many of the steps that he announced Monday have been proposed by previous administrations.

He portrayed the strategy as a stark break with the Obama administration, arguing that while his predecessor set artificial timetables for American involvement in Afghanistan, his strategy would be a comprehensive, conditions-based regional approach that would aim for a political solution there. Part of the plan is to deploy more American troops to Afghanistan to continue to train Afghan forces there, with the goal of persuading the Taliban — which have recently gained substantial ground in the war — that they could not win on the battlefield.

“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Mr. Trump said. “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would hastily fill.”

Mr. Trump said that the United States would put significant new pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist sanctuaries that line its border with Afghanistan. His comments could open a turbulent new chapter in relations with Pakistan, which has veered since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from being an ally in the fight against terrorism to a haven in which Osama bin Laden hid out until he was killed in 2011.

By refusing to place a number on troops or to specify benchmarks for success, Mr. Trump was in essence shielding himself for potential backlash from his political base and from the American public, which has grown weary of the war.

The president heaped contempt on his predecessor’s strategy, promising that he would avoid President Barack Obama’s mistakes. But in substance, Mr. Trump’s strategy was not all that different, relying on a mix of conventional military force and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. One administration official conceded that there was to be no major change in the mix of American forces operating in Afghanistan, and that the priorities would remain training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations.

Mr. Trump spoke of launching an intensive diplomatic and economic initiative, but he does so from a position of acute weakness at the State Department, which has yet to place an ambassador in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, and scrapped the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An estimated 8,400 American troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, most assigned to an approximately 13,000-strong international force that is training and advising the Afghan military. About 2,000 American troops are tasked with carrying out counterterrorism missions along with Afghan forces against groups like the Islamic State’s affiliate.

In recent days, Trump administration aides hinted that the president’s strategy would include new steps to pressure neighboring Pakistan to shut down the sanctuaries there for the Taliban and other militants, a goal Republican and Democratic administrations have pursued for years with little success.

Trump administration officials have also suggested that continued American military involvement and economic assistance in Afghanistan would be contingent on steps by the country’s leaders in Kabul to rein in rampant corruption — another Western aspiration that has repeatedly been dashed in the country, parts of which have been largely lawless for decades.

The move comes with steep risks for Mr. Trump, potentially increasing American troops without yielding many military gains in a conflict that has proved intractable. Still, United States military and intelligence officials have argued that doing nothing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are increasingly gaining ground, is not an option. In February, Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of the American-led international force in Afghanistan, told Congress that the United States and its NATO allies were facing a “stalemate.”

There were potential political perils for Mr. Trump, as well. At least two Republicans who challenged Mr. Trump last year for the presidential nomination issued statements hours before his speech to oppose extending the war in Afghanistan in any way.

“Sixteen years and the lives of over 2,000 American heroes are more than enough of a price to have paid to eradicate a terrorist sanctuary,” Gov. John Kasich, Republican of Ohio, who has positioned himself as a possible primary race candidate in four years, said in a statement. “America cannot afford to make an open-ended commitment of further lives and treasure to the improbable proposition of building a cohesive nation in Afghanistan.”

Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, flatly opposed a troop increase. “The mission in Afghanistan has lost its purpose, and I think it is a terrible idea to send any more troops into that war,” he said in a statement.

The Afghanistan strategy was a consequential moment after a tumultuous week for Mr. Trump, whose response to racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va., raised questions about his ability to shoulder the responsibilities of a president. Having missed an opportunity to calm the tensions after that unrest, he faced the challenging task of marshaling public support for a potentially bloody military mission.

Mr. Trump used the beginning of his speech to offer the message of unity and national healing that he was criticized for failing to communicate after the Charlottesville violence, saying Americans should live the example of those who put aside racial, ethnic and religious differences to serve together on behalf of the nation.

“We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other,” Mr. Trump said. “Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name, that when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.”

Mr. Trump had said little about Afghanistan, either since taking office or during his presidential bid, although his “America First” campaign message envisioned a turn away from foreign military intervention and a refocusing on addressing challenges at home.

As a private citizen, he was actively hostile to American involvement in Afghanistan, dwelling on the high cost of the lengthy conflict and suggesting there was no way for the United States to succeed. In a 2012 post on Twitter, Mr. Trump questioned why American forces continued to train Afghans, writing, “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”

The president’s ambivalence about the mission in Afghanistan was on display in June, when he outsourced to the Pentagon the task of announcing that he had granted Mr. Mattis authority to send 3,900 troops to the war, but said nothing about it himself. On Monday, by contrast, Mr. Trump announced his new strategy with great fanfare, choosing a military backdrop and the attention-grabbing format of a presidential address to sketch out for the first time how he saw the mission.

In announcing his plan, Mr. Trump became the third consecutive American president to be confounded by the conflict in Afghanistan, now the longest military operation in the history of the United States.

Mr. Obama, who campaigned for president pledging to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, eventually agreed to send tens of thousands more troops to carry out an ambitious and expensive counterinsurgency mission that involved trying to win over Afghans by building roads, bridges, schools and a well-functioning government.

Mr. Trump’s decision was expected to be a victory of sorts for Mr. Mattis and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who had argued of dire consequences if the United States did not act quickly to stabilize Afghanistan. The Pentagon had long pointed to the return of extremists in Iraq shortly after the American military withdrew forces after that eight-year war, and warned that any advances in Afghanistan could similarly be lost without a stable troop presence.

The strategy was announced the week after Mr. Trump dismissed his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who had argued forcefully against sending more troops. Mr. Bannon had warned doing so would be a slippery slope toward nation-building, and agitated for alternatives, including using private contractors instead of American forces.

As such, the strategy raised new political perils for the president as it risks alienating core supporters who are leery of United States’ involvement in faraway conflicts, and disdainful of spending taxpayer dollars on things that do not directly benefit Americans. In the hours before Mr. Trump’s speech, Breitbart News, the conservative news site to which Mr. Bannon returned after his departure from the White House, published several articles critical of the president’s anticipated announcement, one of them suggesting that he was proposing “an extension of the failed status quo.”

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