- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2017

President Trump will unveil his highly anticipated strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia during a prime-time address Monday night, an address that will cap months of intense debate between the president’s inner circle and the country’s top national security leaders on the way forward in the war-torn region.

Before an audience of American service members stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, Mr. Trump’s address will “provide an update on the path forward for America’s engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia,” according to a White House statement issued Sunday.

The announcement comes days after Mr. Trump tweeted that he and his top national security staff, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster*, an Army general, and Defense Secretary James Mattis — a former four-star Marine general — have reached a decision on the way ahead in Afghanistan after this weekend’s meetings at Camp David.

“Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented Generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Saturday.

On Sunday Mr. Mattis declined to provide details on what the new Afghan war plan will entail, only telling reporters he was “comfortable” with how the president and administration officials came to its long-awaited decision on the conflict, which is entering its 16th year.

Mr. Trump’s advisers seem to have pulled a page from the playbook of former President Barack Obama, who in 2009 unveiled a new Afghan strategy in his own Monday night address, telling the American public of his plan to add 33,000 troops to U.S. forces in the Southwest Asian nation, bringing the total number to more than 100,000 at the time.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Trump intends to follow suit by approving the modest surge of several thousand in U.S. personnel that is being pushed by a White House faction led by Mr. McMaster and other top defense and intelligence advisers. The McMaster faction over the last several months has coalesced around an increase of 3,900 troops to support the 8,400 American forces currently stationed in Afghanistan.

The majority of those forces will be used to bolster U.S.-led counterterrorism special operations against the Taliban and Islamic State’s Afghan cell, known as Islamic State in the Iraq and Syria, and the Khorasan group, or ISIS-K, in the eastern part of the country, Maj. Gen. James Linder, the head of U.S. and NATO special operations forces in Afghanistan, told The Associated Press Sunday. Roughly 500 of those new troops would be dedicated to the NATO-led military adviser mission in Afghanistan, he added.

Bannon’s impact

The recent ouster of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has only boosted sentiment among Washington oddsmakers that a modest troop surge may end up being the crux of Mr. Trump’s Afghan strategy. Another White House faction led by Mr. Bannon had sought to persuade Mr. Trump to adopt either a partial or complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, effectively ending the U.S. war there.

But a resurgent Taliban combined with ISIS-K’s growing foothold in the eastern part of the country convinced Mr. McMaster and his allies inside the administration that a full U.S. withdrawal would end with the country once again becoming a safe haven for terror groups.

Both government and private-sector analysts say upwards of 40 percent of Afghanistan is heavily influenced or under direct sway by the Taliban. Afghan forces, advised by U.S. and NATO forces, have suffered heavy casualties to maintain control over the 60 percent of the country ruled by the central government in Kabul.

‘Sufficiently rigorous’

The Pentagon’s top official told reporters Sunday he was “comfortable” with how the Trump White House reached its long-awaited decision on its war plans for Afghanistan, saying the debate was “sufficiently vigorous” given what is at stake for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

“I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous and did not go in with a pre-set position,” Mr. Mattis told reporters traveling with him during a diplomatic visit to Jordan — which is the first time the former U.S. Central Command chief will be visiting the country as defense chief.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Mattis was tight-lipped as far as which direction the White House plans to go. But Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. officer in Afghanistan, indicated American forces may be standing alongside their Afghan counterparts for years to come. “I assure you we are with you in this fight. We are with you and we will stay with you,” the four-star general said during a ceremony at Camp Morehead near Kabul, at a ceremony commemorating the creation of a new Afghan Special Operations corps.

White House officials, including Mr. Mattis, had stated publicly the new Afghan war plan would be finalized by mid-July. But as recently as last week, Mr. Mattis said the White House had yet to narrow down its options on Afghanistan.

“We’re sharpening each one of the options so you can see the pluses and minuses of each one, so that there’s no longer any new data you’re going to get,” the Pentagon chief told reporters in Washington last Tuesday before the Camp David meetings.

“Now just make the decision. There’s the options,” he added.

‘Total failure’

In late July the White House reportedly all but abandoned any notion of a complete withdrawal, dubbed the “zero option” by Obama administration strategists, with many inside the Pentagon privately noting the idea was essentially dead on arrival among senior military leaders.

The notion of a full pullout had been bandied about by Mr. Bannon and his acolytes within the administration, who had pressed the White House to substitute those troops for a large force of private security contractors to handle the bulk of the train-and-advise mission currently being carried out by American and NATO troops — essentially privatizing the conflict.

The plan was purportedly proposed by Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater, the private security firm accused of numerous crimes while operating under U.S. government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Prince’s plan would have the 5,000-man contractor force be backed by a privately owned air force operated outside the military’s chain of command, as proposed.

The notion so irked Mr. McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — a retired Marine Corps general — that Mr. Prince was reportedly blocked from attending the Camp David meetings.

On the ground in Afghanistan, the top intelligence official in the country said a full U.S. withdrawal subsidized by a small army of private security contractors “would be a total failure.” Such a move would only exacerbate tensions between Washington and Kabul and provide the Taliban, ISIS-K and other extremist groups more leeway over the country, Col. Abdul Mahfuz, head of Afghan intelligence, told the AP Sunday.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

* This paragraph has been corrected. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is an Army general.

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