President Trump asked the American people Monday to trust him in sending more troops to Afghanistan, saying that his gut told him to pull out but that careful examination of military options convinced him decisive victory over Islamist militants was the only option.
“I share the American people’s frustration,” Mr. Trump said in a speech to troops at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, adding that the troop buildup would not make the mistake of past administrations in attempting nation-building.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” said the president.
The new offensive in Afghanistan, announced in Mr. Trump’s first prime-time TV address to the nation on a single issue, put the president’s desire to project U.S. strength abroad ahead of his populist leanings for rebuilding America and avoiding foreign intervention.
He said that he inherited a mess in Afghanistan, but he had to play the hand he was dealt.
“I knew what I was getting into. One way or another, these problems will be solved,” he said. “I am a problem-solver.”
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Mr. Trump has long voiced skepticism about the continuation of what has become America’s longest war, a 16-year conflict that has claimed more than 2,400 American lives and cost the U.S. anywhere from $700 billion to more than $1 trillion, depending on the estimate.
He promised clear objectives of destroying al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups while bringing more countries, including Pakistan, to help in the effort. He also called out Pakistan for harboring Islamic extremists and destabilizing the region.
But in an implicit shot at former President Barack Obama, he also said he would not set an arbitrary timeline or discuss troop numbers in detail but would instead empower the military to give the U.S. a path to victory.
Mr. Trump also warned Afghanistan that U.S. support wouldn’t be a “blank check,” and that Afghan leaders and the Afghan people would have to take responsibility for their own country.
He also used the speech to address the furor over his response to the deadly violence at a white nationalist demonstration Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was accused of condoning neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan in clashes with counterprotesters because he said there was “blame on both sides.”
He said the patriotic U.S. troops deserved to come home to a united and healed country.
“When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate,” the president said Monday. “The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”
The expected increase of 4,000 additional U.S. forces into Afghanistan will increase the total American force to over 10,000 for the first time since the Pentagon ended combat operations in the country in 2015. Should NATO members opt to match the American increase, the combined U.S.-NATO footprint could exceed 20,000 troops.
The majority of those forces will be used to supplant the alliance’s assistance program for the Afghan military, but others could be used to back the U.S.-led counterterrorism operation dubbed Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. That mission is focused on rolling back gains by a resurgent Taliban, who now are in direct control or hold influence on over half of Afghanistan.
The emergence near the country’s eastern border with Pakistan of an ISIS faction known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan Group also has raised concerns among American, Afghan and NATO commanders in the country.
The troop increase met swift opposition from anti-war factions of both the right and the left.
“The mission in Afghanistan has lost its purpose, and I think it is a terrible idea to send anymore troops into that war,” said Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican with a strong libertarian streak and leading advocate for returning warmaking powers back to Congress.
Mr. Paul has introduced an amendment to the defense policy bill that would repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMFs) that broadly approved war on Islamic terrorists.
Outside Fort Myer, the anti-war group Code Pink staged a demonstration.
“President Trump is making the same mistake as both Republican and Democratic presidents before him, prolonging a war that has no likely positive outcome,” the group said in a statement.
However, the plan also drew plaudits. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said Mr. Trump laid out the beginnings of a new “Trump doctrine,” which he described as “realism.”
“I think you just heard a big flavor of that tonight,” Mr. Ryan said in a town hall in his Wisconsin district aired on CNN.
He said Mr. Trump’s speech represented a rejection of both Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Obama’s practice of jumping from one-year strategy to one-year strategy, replacing those with something comprehensive. He also said it was the right move to reject giving a certain end date for the American commitment.
“I’m pleased with the decision. I’m actually pleased with the way he went about making this decision,” Mr. Ryan said.
Sen. John McCain, who had been a staunch critic of the president and his lack of a new Afghan strategy, said the war plan was a “big step in the right direction.”
“The president is now moving us well beyond the prior administration’s failed strategy of merely postponing defeat” in Afghanistan, said the Arizona Republican.
Mr. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and who issued his own plan for the way ahead in Afghanistan last month, said he plans to hold hearings in September to review the details of the president’s new Afghan plan.
Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., took to social media to express support for the new strategy.
“We welcome @realDonaldTrump decision for a strong Afghan-US partnership in the fight against terrorism towards a peaceful & enduring outcome,” he tweeted.
The strategy extended beyond Afghanistan to the South Asia region and focused partly on winning cooperation of Pakistan in obliterating the Islamic extremists.
“Terrorists take heed,” Mr. Trump said in his speech. “America will never give up. … We have faced down evil, and we always prevail.”
Washington and Islamabad have been uncomfortable bedfellows in counterterrorism operations tied to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan since the American invasion of Pakistan’s neighbor in 2001.
The relationship has been rife with allegations that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, has been covertly training and financing extremist terror groups like the Pakistani faction of the Taliban and the infamous Haqqani network.
Islamabad has fired back counter-accusations that Washington’s heavy military and political support for India has undermined regional stability efforts spearheaded by Pakistan.
Tensions were further inflamed in December 2016, when then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter approved India’s designation as “major defense partner” with the United States — a distinction only New Delhi holds among U.S. allies in the region.
The designation would give India access to some of the most advanced and sensitive military technology in the American arsenal, putting the country on par with such long-term, historic U.S. allies as France, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Mr. Trump’s new Afghan strategy also called for expanded authorities for U.S. forces in the country to go after extremist groups operating in the country, effectively restarting the American combat mission in the country that officially ended in 2015.
Since then, Afghan forces have waged war against the Taliban and now the Islamic State’s faction in the country, with U.S. troops providing military assistance. Under Mr. Trump’s new plan, American forces will be able to engage against terror groups “that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” he said, adding that “retribution will be fast and powerful.”
The decision to expand the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in Afghanistan falls in line with the administration’s strategy for U.S. forces supporting ongoing offensives against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this year the Pentagon began allowing senior U.S. and coalition commanders in Iraq and Syria to delegate command of American air power “down to the tactical edge.”
Defense officials argued this move would allow U.S. warplanes to engage time-sensitive targets quicker and respond to calls for air support from ground forces faster. Opponents of the move say it has allowed low-level officers to engage in riskier airstrikes, resulting in higher instances of civilian casualties.
In the speech Mr. Trump acknowledged his distaste for continuing the country’s longest war and that his new strategy went against his gut instinct to bring the troops home.
Indeed, his stance on the war has been all over the map. His early enough-is-enough rhetoric gave way to a more hawkish worldview and worries that a U.S. withdrawal would create a power vacuum that al Qaeda or Islamic State would fill, an argument forcefully impressed on the president by Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011 America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq,” Mr. Trump said in the speech, using an acronym for Islamic State. “As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies.”