In an evening televised address from Fort Myer, Va., President Donald Trump unveiled a long-awaited strategy with regard to the war in Afghanistan, dubbed “a path forward for America’s engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia” on Monday night.
Speaking before an assembled crowd of service members, President Trump acknowledged that the “American people are weary of war without victory,” and delivered a full-throated endorsement of achieving “an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the sacrifices that have been made.”
Explicitly forgoing specifics on troop numbers or battlefield plans, Trump doubled down on America’s commitment to Afghanistan, but did so with a distinct and powerful caveat that “we are not nation building again, we are killing terrorists.”
Saying his “original instinct was to pull out,” Trump acknowledged that “decisions are much different when you are President of the United States.” He went on to say that through consultation with his military advisors, he had reached three fundamental conclusions which informed the strategy being presented. First, an enduring victory is necessary to honor the sacrifices that have been made over the last 16 years. Second, citing Iraq as the prime example: a hasty withdraw from Afghanistan would be unacceptable, leading to a security vacuum that would be filled by terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. And third, the myriad security threats in Afghanistan and South Asia necessitate a continued commitment.
These conclusions dictated what the President referred to as “pillars” of the new strategy, the first of which will alter America’s commitment from operations dictated by time-tables to one managed by conditions on the ground. The second pillar involves wielding all instruments of government power to influence the American effort, not solely the military. And the final pillar will be to hold Pakistan accountable for harboring “criminals and terrorists” which actively thwart U.S. interests in Afghanistan.
Perhaps most critical to President Trump’s short speech was the emergence of a more coherent Trump foreign policy doctrine, one the President himself referred to as “principled realism,” which seems to suggest being more flexible with how American allies conduct themselves so long as it remains in America’s interest. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in other lands,” the President said.
The Trump Administration had delayed the announcement of its own plan to address America’s longest war—which turns 16 years old this fall—although Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had received the go-ahead earlier this summer to send up to 3,900 additional troops to Afghanistan in a bid to shore up the ongoing assistance mission with the Afghan military. Mattis has until now refrained from increasing existing troop numbers, instead deferring to the need for a re-examined broader strategy with regard to Afghanistan.
Trump has found himself in a sort of quandary America’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a war he largely remained silent on during the campaign. In the relatively few instances he has spoken of the war, he has suggested a withdrawal would be in the United States’ interest. However, during this summer’s Afghanistan strategy review process, Trump’s military commanders have advocated a troop increase, potentially placing Trump in an uncomfortable position of disagreeing with his military experts, something he regularly criticized President Obama for.
In advocating for a troop increase, Trump officially takes ownership of the languishing effort to build up a struggling Afghan military which has suffered considerable battlefield losses against a resurgent Taliban, and a government besieged by corruption and inefficacy.
By advocating for a more aggressive military strategy to defeat America’s enemies in Afghanistan, Trump will likely relax rules of engagement restrictions that have been a hallmark of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for years.
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