By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday put forward a long-awaited strategy for resolving the nearly 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, but one that failed to specify either the number of troops that would be committed, or the conditions by which he would judge the success of their mission there.
In a nationally televised prime-time speech to troops at Fort Myer, Virginia, Trump was planning to say there would be no “blank check” for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, according to senior administration officials who insisted on anonymity to preview his remarks. But in announcing his plan, Trump was embracing deepened American involvement in a military mission that has bedeviled his predecessors and that he once called futile.
Trump campaigned for president promising to extricate the United States from foreign conflicts, and many of the steps that he was expected to announce Monday have been proposed by previous administrations.
Trump was planning to portray the strategy as a stark break with the Obama administration, arguing that while his predecessor set artificial timetables for American involvement in Afghanistan, his would be a comprehensive, conditions-based regional approach that would aim for a political solution there. Yet the officials acknowledged that part of the plan would be to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to continue to train Afghan forces there, with the goal of persuading the Taliban – which has recently gained substantial ground in the war – that they could not win on the battlefield.
Trump was also planning to say that the United States would put significant new pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the terrorist sanctuaries that line its border with Afghanistan. His comments could open a turbulent new chapter in relations with Pakistan, which has veered since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from being an ally in the fight against terrorism to a haven in which Osama bin Laden hid out until he was killed in 2011.
By refusing to place a number on troops or to specify benchmarks for success, Trump was in essence shielding himself for potential backlash from his political base and from the American public, which has grown weary of the war in Afghanistan.
The president was expected to heap contempt on his predecessor’s strategy, promising that he would avoid President Barack Obama’s mistakes. But in substance, Trump’s strategy was not all that different, relying on a mix of conventional military force and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. One administration official conceded that there was to be no major change in the mix of U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan, and that the priorities would remain training Afghan forces and conducting counterterrorism operations.
An estimated 8,400 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan, most assigned to an approximately 13,000-strong international force that is training and advising the Afghan military. About 2,000 U.S. troops are tasked with carrying out counterterrorism missions along with Afghan forces against groups like the Islamic State’s affiliate.
In recent days, Trump administration aides have hinted that the president’s strategy would include new steps to pressure neighboring Pakistan to shut down the sanctuaries there for the Taliban and other militants, a goal Republican and Democratic administrations have pursued for years with little success.
Trump administration officials have also suggested that continued U.S. military involvement and economic assistance in Afghanistan would be contingent on steps by the country’s leaders in Kabul, the capital, to rein in rampant corruption – another Western aspiration that has repeatedly been dashed in the country, parts of which have been largely lawless for decades.
The move comes with steep risks for Trump, potentially increasing U.S. troops without yielding many military gains in a conflict that has proved intractable. Still, U.S. military and intelligence officials have argued that doing nothing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are increasingly gaining ground, is not an option. In February, Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of the U.S.-led international force in Afghanistan, told Congress that the United States and its NATO allies were facing a “stalemate.”
There were potential political perils for Trump, as well. At least two Republicans who challenged Trump last year for the presidential nomination issued statements hours before his speech to oppose extending the war in Afghanistan in any way.
“Sixteen years and the lives of over 2,000 American heroes are more than enough of a price to have paid to eradicate a terrorist sanctuary,” Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio, who has positioned himself as a possible primary race candidate in four years, said in a statement. “America cannot afford to make an open-ended commitment of further lives and treasure to the improbable proposition of building a cohesive nation in Afghanistan.”
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flatly opposed a troop increase. “The mission in Afghanistan has lost its purpose, and I think it is a terrible idea to send any more troops into that war,” he said in a statement.
The Afghanistan strategy was a consequential moment after a tumultuous week for Trump, whose response to racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, raised questions about his ability to shoulder the responsibilities of a president. Having missed an opportunity to calm the tensions after that unrest, he faced the challenging task of marshaling public support for a potentially bloody military mission.
Trump had said little about Afghanistan, either since taking office or during his presidential bid, although his “America First” campaign message envisioned a turn away from foreign military intervention and a refocusing on addressing challenges at home.
As a private citizen, he was actively hostile to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, dwelling on the high cost of the lengthy conflict and suggesting there was no way for the United States to succeed. In a 2012 post on Twitter, Trump questioned why U.S. forces continued to train Afghans, writing, “Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”
The president’s ambivalence about the mission in Afghanistan was on display in June, when he outsourced to the Pentagon the task of announcing that he had granted Mattis authority to send 3,900 troops to the war, but said nothing about it himself. On Monday, by contrast, Trump was to announce his new strategy with great fanfare, choosing a military backdrop and the attention-grabbing format of a presidential address to sketch out for the first time how he saw the mission.
In announcing his plan, Trump became the third consecutive U.S. president to be confounded by the conflict in Afghanistan, now the longest military operation in the history of the United States.
Obama, who campaigned for president pledging to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, eventually agreed to send tens of thousands more troops to carry out an ambitious and expensive counterinsurgency mission that involved trying to win over Afghans by building roads, bridges, schools and a well-functioning government.
Trump’s decision is expected to be a victory of sorts for Mattis and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who had argued of dire consequences if the United States did not act quickly to stabilize Afghanistan. The Pentagon had long pointed to the return of extremists in Iraq shortly after the U.S. military withdrew forces after that eight-year war, and warned that any advances in Afghanistan could similarly be lost without a stable troop presence.
The strategy was to be announced the week after Trump dismissed his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who had argued forcefully against sending more troops. Bannon had warned doing so would be a slippery slope toward nation-building, and agitated for alternatives, including using private contractors instead of U.S. forces.
As such, the new strategy raised new political perils for the president as it risks alienating core supporters who are leery of U.S. involvement in faraway conflicts, and disdainful of spending taxpayer dollars on things that do not directly benefit Americans. In the hours before Trump’s speech, Breitbart News, the conservative news site to which Bannon returned after his departure from the White House, published several articles critical of the president’s anticipated announcement, one of them suggesting that he was proposing “an extension of the failed status quo.”