President Trump observed his first 9/11 anniversary as commander in chief Monday by vowing to pursue radical Islamic terrorists into the darkest corners of the world, underscoring his plans to send potentially thousands more troops to Afghanistan in the hope of stabilizing the country that served as the launchpad for al Qaeda’s attack.
As he honored the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11 and the nearly 7,000 service members who have given their lives since then while fighting terrorism around the world, Mr. Trump reminded Americans that he had taken the war and the anti-terrorism campaign in a more aggressive direction.
“We are making plain to these savage killers that there is no dark corner beyond our reach, no sanctuary beyond our grasp and nowhere to hide anywhere on this very large earth,” the president said during a ceremony at the Pentagon, one of the buildings hit that day by airline hijackers.
“America does not bend. We do not waver. And we will never, ever yield,” he said. “So here at this memorial, with hearts both sad and determined, we honor every hero who keeps us safe and free, and we pledge to work together, to fight together and to overcome together every enemy and obstacle that’s ever in our path.”
Anniversaries of the attacks have brought similar words from previous presidents, including Barack Obama, whom Mr. Trump has said mishandled the terrorism fight.
The shift in war policy under Mr. Trump has been dramatic: He isn’t looking for the exit but is stepping up the fight in Afghanistan and around the world.
Mr. Trump is authorizing more troops for Afghanistan and putting supposed allies in Pakistan on notice that the U.S. will no longer tolerate a blind eye to terrorism in the region.
Shutting down safe havens for radical Islamic militants is as crucial to defeating the Taliban as sending more U.S. troops to support the Afghan military, anti-terrorism analysts say.
As many as 4,000 more troops are expected to be deployed to train and assist the Afghan military to take more Taliban strongholds and hold the territory.
The troop levels have not been publicly announced, in keeping with Mr. Trump’s stated policy of not announcing military plans.
Mr. Trump also has increased pressure on Arab countries to crack down on terrorism financing within their borders, another issue that has been discussed for years but never accomplished.
Backers of the strategy credit Mr. Trump with replacing 16 one-year strategies with a comprehensive, goal-oriented plan that will keep U.S. troops on the ground to cement long-term gains and wear down Taliban forces. The goals are to prevent Afghanistan from providing safe haven for anti-U.S. terrorist plots and to stop it from destabilizing the region.
James Jay Carafano, a national security and foreign policy scholar at The Heritage Foundation, compared the long-term strategy to the stabilizing presence of U.S. forces in Europe after World War II.
“The question is. ‘When is it going to end?’ The answer is, ‘Probably not anytime soon,’” he said. “Our troops may be there for years, but I argue that if you look at what we are tying to achieve and the benefit we get out of it, it’s worth sustaining.”
Critics of the short-on-details plan that Mr. Trump announced Aug. 21 said it wasn’t a strategy at all — just a prolonging of the longest war in U.S. history.
“This was a political rather than strategic decision,” said Michael C. Desch, director of the International Security Center at Notre Dame University.
He said Mr. Trump, who as a candidate talked about ending the U.S. role as the world’s policeman, has been co-opted by hawkish generals and establishment Republicans.
“During [the] campaign and early in his administration, President Trump evinced a recognition that our efforts there were failing and may have reflected the difficulty of nation-building in a perpetually failed state. In the last few months, however, and in the face of a united front presented by his military advisers, he has reluctantly tacked back to the establishment policy of reinforcing failure, agreeing to a modest increase of U.S. forces there,” Mr. Desch said.
At the 9/11 ceremony, Mr. Trump remembered those killed 16 years ago at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and in a field in Pennsylvania, and he shared in their families’ grief.
“Though we can never erase your pain or bring back those you lost, we can honor their sacrifice by pledging our resolve to do whatever we must to keep our people safe,” said Mr. Trump, the first New Yorker to occupy the White House since the horrific attacks shook that city.
“On that day, not only did the world change, but we all changed. Our eyes were opened to the depths of the evil we face,” he said.
Mr. Trump, a billionaire businessman, has taken criticism for his immediate response to the attacks in 2001, including his failure to make a sizable contribution to 9/11 charities.
He also has been faulted for saying in a TV interview on the day of the attack that the collapse of the World Trade Center towers made his property at 40 Wall St., known as the Trump Building, once again the tallest building in New York.
His defenders said it was just “Donald being Donald” — always promoting his brand.
As president, however, he promoted America.
“In that hour of darkness, we also came together with renewed purpose. Our differences never looked so small. Our common bonds never felt so strong,” he said at the Pentagon. “The sacrifice grounds on which we stand today are a monument to our national unity and to our strength.”