President Donald Trump on Monday cleared the way for the deployment of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan, backtracking from his promise to swiftly end America’s longest-ever war, while pillorying ally Pakistan for offering safe haven to “agents of chaos.”
In his first formal address to the nation as commander-in-chief, Trump discarded his previous criticism of the 16-year-old war as a waste of time and money, admitting things looked different from “behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
“My instinct was to pull out,” Trump admitted as he spoke of frustration with a war that has killed thousands of US troops and cost US taxpayers trillions of dollars.
But following months of discussion, Trump said he had concluded that “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable” and leaving a “vacuum” that terrorists “would instantly fill”.
While Trump refused to offer detailed troop numbers, senior White House officials said he had already authorised his defence secretary to deploy up to 3,900 more troops to Afghanistan.
The conflict that began in October 2001 as a hunt for the 9/11 attackers has turned into a vexed effort to keep Afghanistan’s divided and corruption-hindered democracy alive amid a brutal Taliban insurgency.
How Afghanistan could affect its neighbourhood
Trump also warned that the approach would now be more pragmatic than idealistic. Security assistance to Afghanistan was “not a blank check” he said, warning he would not send the military to “construct democracies in faraway lands or create democracies in our own image.”
“We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.”
Trump indicated that this single-minded approach would extend to US relations with Pakistan, which consecutive US administrations have criticised for links with the Taliban and for harbouring influential figures from major terrorist groups, such as Osama bin Laden.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations,” he said, warning that vital aid could be cut.
“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars. At the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” he claimed. “That will have to change and that will change immediately.”
Ahead of the speech, Pakistan’s military brushed off speculation that Trump could signal a stronger line against Islamabad, insisting the country has done all it can to tackle militancy.
“Let it come,” Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Major General Asif Ghafoor told reporters, referring to Trump’s decision. “Even if it comes… Pakistan shall do whatever is best in the national interest.”
He added that there are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. “We have operated against all terrorists, including [the] Haqqani network,” the ISPR chief said.
Trump for the first time also left the door open to an eventual political deal with the Taliban.
US tough talk could push Pakistan closer to Russia, China
“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said.
“But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen,” he added, before vowing that “America will continue its support for the Afghan government and military as they confront the Taliban in the field.”
Meanwhile, in a press conference at the State Department on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Pakistan must adopt a different approach to terrorism and the United States will condition its support on Islamabad’s delivering results in this area. “There’s been an erosion in trust because we have witnessed terrorist organisations being given safe haven inside Pakistan to plan and carry out attacks against US servicemen and US officials, disrupting peace efforts inside of Afghanistan,”
Tillerson said. “Pakistan must adopt a different approach, and we are ready to work with them to help them protect themselves against these terrorist organisations.”
While wary of international entanglements, Trump has also been eager to show success and steel in the realm of national security.
As president, he has surrounded himself with generals – from his national security adviser to his chief of staff to his defence secretary – who have urged him to stay the course.
The Trump administration had originally promised a new Afghan plan by mid-July, but Trump was said to be dissatisfied by initial proposals to deploy a few thousand more troops.
His new policy will raise questions about what, if anything, can be achieved by making further deployments, or repeating the demands of previous administrations in more forceful terms.
In 2010, the United States had upwards of 100,000 US military personnel deployed to Afghanistan. Today that figure is around 8,400 US troops and the situation is as deadly as ever.
Pakistani politicians react to Trump’s comments and US Afghan policy
More than 2,500 Afghan police and troops have already been killed this year.
“The Afghan government remains divided and weak, its security forces will take years of expensive US and allied support to become fully effective, and they may still lose, even with such support,” said Anthony Cordesman of The Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
Trump’s announcement comes amid a month of serious turmoil for his administration, which has seen several top White House officials fired and revelations that members of Trump’s campaign are being investigated by a federal grand jury.
He sought in his address to convince Americans who have wearied of his controversial off-the-cuff remarks.
“I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle,” he said, hoping to show he has sufficiently pondered the decision to send more young Americans into mortal danger.
The decision on Afghanistan could have wide-ranging political repercussions for Trump, who faces a backlash from his base for reversing his pledge not to deepen military entanglements on foreign soil.
One of the main voices arguing for withdrawal, Trump’s nationalistic chief strategist Steve Bannon, was removed from his post on Friday.
Among the advisers present at Camp David was new White House chief of staff John Kelly, a former Marine Corps general whose son died in Afghanistan in 2010.