WASHINGTON ― After a months-long interagency review, President Donald Trump was supposed to announce a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan on Monday. Instead, he made vague promises of victory and said the U.S. would no longer make public key details about the war effort, including the number of American troops deployed.
“I’ve said many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military operations,” Trump said, speaking from Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”
The goal in Afghanistan, Trump said, will be manifold: “Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”
In order to accomplish these goals, Trump said, he would “expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.”
He did not elaborate on how he planned to broaden the already sweeping authority the U.S. military has to kill terrorist groups abroad, but Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, predicted it would translate into increased civilian casualties in Afghanistan.
During the presidential campaign, Trump proposed targeting the families of terrorists, an act that would be a violation of international law.
Trump also pledged Monday night to take a more aggressive stance toward Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan and has long served as a haven for extremist groups driven out of Afghanistan by U.S. troops. But, again, he did not offer specifics about his approach toward Pakistan.
The announcement indicates that the Trump administration has no intention of pulling the U.S. out of the nearly 16-year-old war. The newly unveiled plan represents a departure from Trump’s “America first” campaign rhetoric and instead resembles a continuation of former President Barack Obama’s strategy of maintaining a troop presence in Afghanistan to support the local military and prevent the Taliban from overrunning the country ― but with even less accountability and transparency than his predecessor.
The war in Afghanistan is currently authorized by a law passed by Congress in 2001 to allow the military to target the plotters of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. Lawmakers from both parties have conceded that the law is outdated and overly broad ― but have failed to pass a new authorization for the use of military force.
Trump’s decision follows a policy review that began shortly after he took office in January. The president’s national security team, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander in Afghanistan, have urged Trump to send more U.S. troops to support the beleaguered Afghan security forces in the fight against the Taliban, with the eventual goal of weakening the Taliban enough to bring them to the negotiating table to work out a peace agreement.
But some of Trump’s closest advisers, including recently ousted chief strategist Steve Bannon, warned the president against expanding the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Bannon reportedly presented Trump with plans from billionaire Stephen Feinberg to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and Blackwater founder Erik Prince to use private military contractors to defeat the Taliban. Neither proposal gained support from within the Pentagon.
Trump initially planned to pull the U.S. out of Afghanistan, he said Monday, but his top advisers, including several military generals, changed his mind. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
Trump was convinced by his advisers that withdrawing from Afghanistan would leave a vacuum that would allow groups like the Taliban, ISIS and al Qaeda to prosper. Senior administration officials told reporters that the president’s new plan entailed sending approximately 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, which would bring the total presence past 12,000, but Trump did not confirm troop numbers nor whether they would serve in an advisory or combat role.
Several NATO allies “have also committed to increasing troop numbers,” Mattis said in a statement Monday night after Trump’s speech. “Together, we will assist the Afghan Security forces to destroy the terrorist hub.”
When Obama was still in office and overseeing a massive troop presence in Afghanistan, Trump repeatedly bashed the operation as a waste of money and called for a quick withdrawal from the country. “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!” Trump tweeted in November 2013, as he was exploring a presidential bid.
But by the time Trump became a presidential candidate, he had abandoned talk of a quick withdrawal.
Instead, he criticized the initial decision to invade but acknowledged that abruptly leaving was unrealistic. “I would leave the troops there begrudgingly. Believe me, I’m not happy about it,” Trump told CNN in October 2015. At a presidential debate in March 2016, he said, “You have to stay in Afghanistan for a while, because of the fact that you’re right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons, and we have to protect that.”
Former officials who have served in Afghanistan say Trump’s reversal is the result of coming to terms with a set of unattractive policy options: a troop withdrawal that would inevitably allow the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS to gain control in the country, or try to keep the insurgency at bay while prolonging a so-far-unsuccessful effort to help the Afghan security forces develop the capability to defend the country on their own.
“He’s facing the same set of circumstances Obama faced,” said James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014. “You have no guarantee that you can succeed or prevail by staying and trying to get it right, but there is a pretty good guarantee you will fail if we don’t try to get the strategy right and implement it.”
When Obama entered office in 2009, he viewed the war in Afghanistan as a winnable conflict and approved requests from his military to dramatically increase U.S. troop presence in the country. After ramping up troop levels to approximately 100,000 and driving the Taliban out of key population centers, Obama aimed to bring all U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by the time he left office. But as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan dwindled, the country’s own fighting force proved ill-prepared to ward off insurgents. In his final year in office, Obama was faced with gains by the Taliban and an expanding presence by the Islamic State. He announced in July 2016 that he would leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan to train and support local forces, surrendering his goal of ending the war there.
Now Trump is faced with a similar dilemma. A rapid troop withdrawal would fulfill a campaign promise to focus resources at home, but it comes at a risk of allowing Afghanistan to crumble into a haven for extremist groups.
Though prolonging a seemingly endless war is not popular among voters, especially within the far-right part of Trump’s base, there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that allowing Afghanistan to fall to extremist groups would set back the U.S. fight against Islamist extremism in the Middle East.
“What I have been urging others to try to make clear to him is that you can’t win the war on Islamic terrorism and fail in Afghanistan at the same time,” Cunningham said.
Although Trump has railed against expending “blood and treasure” in the Middle East, maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan is less of a risk than an abrupt withdrawal.
“The choice was between losing and not losing. Losing is something that comes quickly, has obvious and possibly enduring consequences. Not losing has continuous costs, but relatively speaking, modest costs,” James Dobbins, who served as the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2013 and 2014, said. “And Afghanistan is not on the radar of the American people … if you ask if people want to leave, they will probably say yes, but are they going to march in the streets for it? No.”
Even if Trump didn’t explicitly promise to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, some of his most fervent supporters interpreted his “America first” theme as an inherent promise to oversee a non-interventionist policy. Far-right nationalist voters attacked Trump when he bombed a Syrian military target in April, accusing him of cowing to establishment neoconservatives in Washington. Trump is likely to face a similar backlash for deepening the U.S. role in Afghanistan.
Hours before the Afghanistan announcement, far-right news site Breitbart News, which Bannon just rejoined, accused the administration of lacking a strategic objective in an article titled, “What Is The Goal In Afghanistan? Washington Does Not Know.”