President Trump asked the American people Monday to trust him in sending more troops to Afghanistan, saying that his gut told him to pullout 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 administration 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 said he knew what that when he ran for president and he vowed get results for the American people.
“I knew what I was getting into. One way or another these problems will be solved,” he said. “I am a problem solver.”
He promised clear objectives of destroying al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups while brining more countries, including Pakistan, to help in the effort.
But in an implicit shot at former President Barack Obama, he 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.
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 Islamic State faction known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — or Khorasan Group — also has raised concerns among American, Afghan and NATO commanders in the country.
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 the Bush and Obama 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.
The troop increase met swift opposition from 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 war-making 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.
The strategy extended beyond Afghanistan to the South Asia region and focused partly on winning the cooperation of Pakistan in obliterating the Islamic extremists.
“Terrorists take heed,” he said, “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 Dehli 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 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.
But 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.
President Barack Obama faced a similar dilemma upon reaching the Oval Office and eventually sent a 30,000-troop surge into Afghanistan. To keep campaign pledges, Mr. Obama later announced the timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, and by 2014 had brought home most U.S. troops. By 2016 he halted the pullout and left the current force of about 8,400 troops to help Afghan security forces in the struggle to contain advancing Taliban insurgents.
Mr. Trump ordered a strategic review soon after taking office in January, and reportedly fumed at Pentagon top brass in July, when the review was due, that “we’re not winning.”
The Afghanistan War has vexed three administrations since President George W. Bush invaded in October 2001 in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban regime that gave safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists, but they have been bogged down for years trying to stamp out Islamist militants and prop up a weak and corrupt Afghan government.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump said it was a mistake to get into the war. He compared it to the blunder he said Mr. Bush made by invading Iraq.
He revised that statement to say it wasn’t a mistake to go in but that he didn’t want to repeat in Afghanistan the mistake Mr. Obama made in pulling out too early from Iraq. That was a departure from his usual refrain that the U.S. shouldn’t be wasting money on wars in the Middle East.
Back in October 2011, he tweeted: “When will we stop wasting our money on rebuilding Afghanistan? We must rebuild our country first.”
He still wanted out two years later. “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA,” he tweeted in 2013.
Similar expressions would punctuate his 2016 campaign for president.”The people opposing us are the same people, and think of this, who’ve wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East — we could have rebuilt our country twice — that have produced only more terrorism, more death and more suffering.
Imagine if that money had been spent at home,” Mr. Trump said at a rally in North Carolina just weeks before the November election.
The most prominent voice in the White House prodding Mr. Trump to bring the troops home from Afghanistan was the president’s chief political strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who was fired Friday.
Mr. Bannon was absent from Mr. Trump’s powwow with top military and national security advisers at Camp David, Maryland, to finalize a new strategy for Afghanistan and the region.
• Stephan Dinan contributed to this report.
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