WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Reversing course from his campaign pledges, President Donald Trump on Monday night (Aug 21) committed the United States to an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan, signaling he would dispatch more troops to America’s longest war and vowing “a fight to win.”
In a speech offering few specifics, Trump promised a stepped-up military campaign against Taleban insurgents who have gained ground against the US-backed Afghan government and he singled out Pakistan for harbouring militants.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” he said in a prime-time televised address at a military base outside Washington.
Trump ran for the US presidency calling for a swift US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and he acknowledged on Monday that he was going against his instincts in approving the new campaign plan sought by his military advisers.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” he said. “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, would instantly fill.”
The Republican president, who has criticised his predecessors for setting deadlines for drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, declined to put a time line on expanded US military operations in Afghanistan.
Trump now inherits the same challenges as predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama, including a stubborn Taleban insurgency and a weak, divided government in Kabul. He is laying the groundwork for greater US involvement without a clear end in sight or providing specific benchmarks for success.
US officials said he had signed off on Defence Secretary James Mattis’ plans to send about 4,000 more troops to add to the roughly 8,400 now deployed in Afghanistan.
Mattis said he had directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to carry out the strategy and that he would be consulting with Nato and US allies, several of which had also committed to increasing troops.
‘NOT A BLANK CHECK’
Trump warned that US support “is not a blank check,” and insisted he would not engage in “nation-building,” a practice he has accused his predecessors of doing at huge cost.
Through the speech, Trump insisted that others – the Afghan government, Pakistan, India and Nato allies – step up their own commitment to resolving the 16-year conflict.
Trump saved his sharpest words for Pakistan. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens,” Trump said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
Senior US officials warned he could reduce security assistance for Pakistan unless the nuclear-armed nation cooperates more in preventing militants from using safe havens on its soil.
A Pakistani army spokesman said on Monday that Pakistan had taken action against all Islamist militants including the Haqqani network, which is allied to Afghan Taleban insurgents.
“There are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. We have operated against all terrorists, including (the) Haqqani network,” spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor told a media briefing in Islamabad.
Obama also took Pakistan to task for supporting militants, and sent Navy SEALs into the country to kill Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. It remains to be seen if Trump’s rhetoric will change Pakistan’s calculations in Afghanistan, which it sees as a vital strategic interest.
Trump expanded the US military’s authority for American armed forces to target militant and criminal networks. He said that US enemies in Afghanistan “need to know they have nowhere to hide – that no place is beyond the reach of American arms.” “Our troops will fight to win,” he added.
A US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Islamist Taleban government for harbouring Al-Qaeda militants who plotted the Sept 11 attacks. But US forces have remained bogged down there through the presidencies of Bush, Obama and now Trump.
About 2,400 US forces have died in Afghanistan since the invasion.
The speech came after a months-long review of US policy in which Trump frequently tangled with his top advisers on the future of US involvement in Afghanistan, where Taleban insurgents have been making territorial gains.
US military and intelligence officials are concerned that a Taleban victory over Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government would allow Al-Qaeda and the ISIS regional affiliate to establish bases in Afghanistan from which to plot attacks against the United States and its allies.
“The unfortunate truth is that this strategy is long overdue and in the interim the Taleban has made dangerous inroads,” said senior Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senator Jack Reed, senior Democrat on the committee, criticised what he called a speech short on details. “President Trump now recognises the need to stabilise the situation and assist the government of Afghanistan to regain momentum. But he was very vague,” Reed said.
Trump suggested he was hoping for eventual peace talks, and said it might be possible to have a political settlement with elements of the Taleban. “But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen,” he said.
In a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taleban without preconditions.”
Trump overcame his own skepticism about the war that began in October 2001. He said repeatedly on the campaign trail last year that the war was too costly in lives and money. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he said in his speech, but added he was convinced by his national security advisers to strengthen the U.S. ability to prevent the Taliban from ousting the government in Kabul.
Trump’s speech came as the president tries to rebound after he was engulfed in controversy for saying both sides were to blame for violence between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month.
In an allusion to the Charlottesville uproar, Trump said:“We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”
US commanders have long planned for a possible shift in resources from Iraq to Afghanistan as the fight against ISIS comes off its peak, following gains made in the Iraqi city of Mosul and other areas.
One reason the White House decision took so long, two officials who participated in the discussions said on Sunday, is that it was difficult to get Trump to accept the need for a broader regional strategy that included US policy toward Pakistan.
Trump received a wide range of conflicting options, the officials said.
White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other advisers favoured accepting a request for an 4,000 additional U.S. forces.
But recently ousted White House strategic adviser Steve Bannon had argued for the withdrawal of all US forces, saying the war was still not winnable, US officials said. Bannon was fired on Friday by Trump.
Breitbart News, the hard-right news site to which Bannon has returned as executive chairman, said on its home page that Trump “reverses course” and “defends flip-flop in somber speech.”