Is there Anything New in Trump’s Strategy for the War in Afghanistan?
On Monday night, President Donald Trump addressed the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, to lay out his new approach to the war in Afghanistan, the culmination of a months-long policy review. With his speech, President Trump took ownership of America’s longest war, the 16-year-long conflict that has spanned three presidencies with no end in sight.
One of the most striking aspects of the new plan is the way in which it contradicts much of what Trump has been saying about the war in Afghanistan for years, including throughout the 2016 campaign. In fact, Trump himself acknowledged this in his speech. “My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” he said. Although Trump has long been wary of foreign interventions, he argued that a quick troop withdrawal would create a power vacuum like the one that gave rise to the Islamic State in Iraq.
A key component of the announcement is President Trump’s plan to send additional troops to Afghanistan, yet he provided no timetable for when the U.S. might reduce its military presence there. In fact, the lack of a timetable is a feature of the president’s approach. Trump said on Monday, “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.” Beyond refusing to provide a timetable for withdrawal, the president also refused to reveal how many additional soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan, declaring, “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”
Although the Trump Administration has refused to provide official numbers to the public, the Associated Press reported that approximately 3,900 troops, in addition to the 8,400 Americans currently in the country, will be sent to Afghanistan in the coming days or weeks. That number is well below the peak of about 100,000 troops during the Obama Administration’s surge in 2010 and 2011. Trump reiterated that troops would go home based on the conditions on the ground, but he was also vague about what exactly those conditions would look like.
Instead, Trump said that the U.S. goals in Afghanistan would focus on U.S. security interests, particularly defeating terrorists, rather than telling the local government how it should run itself. “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” he said. Throughout his speech, President Trump reiterated his commitment to “winning,” although he offered only vague indications of what a desirable result might look like.
While many of the components of the plan are familiar, there are a few details that do seem different. A notable example of this is the strong line the president took against Pakistan. In his address, Trump said, “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” While it’s true that past presidents have focused on Pakistan’s role in the fight against terrorism–President Obama’s 2009 Afghanistan address featured Pakistan prominently–Trump’s tone was considerably more confrontational. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change. And that will change immediately,” he said.
Although there’s reason to doubt the leverage that the United States has over Pakistan when it comes to its role in sheltering the Taliban, the president’s rhetoric would suggest a more active approach. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson floated the idea that the United States might sanction people in Pakistan if the government does not crack down on terrorists within its borders. In another notable change from his predecessors, Trump called on India to play a larger role in bolstering the economic and security stability in Afghanistan.
Finally, one part of Trump’s address may lead to a shift in the jobs of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Currently, American troops serve largely in an advisory capacity, training the Afghan forces to fight the Taliban. But in his speech, Trump derided the “Micromanagement from Washington, D.C.” and said that he has lifted restrictions on American soldiers in Afghanistan to allow them to directly target terrorists and criminal networks. The extent to which this will change the American military’s function in Afghanistan remains to be seen, but it could mark a significant departure from its role under President Obama.
Here’s the video of President Trump’s full remarks: