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Five Takeaways From Trump's New Afghan Strategy

FILE: An Afghan soldier during an ongoing operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the eastern Nangarhar province in April 11.
FILE: An Afghan soldier during an ongoing operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the eastern Nangarhar province in April 11.

President Donald Trump laid out a plan on August 21 for waging what has become the longest war in U.S. history in an eagerly awaited address on U.S. "strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia."

The U.S. leader vowed to "win" the 16-year-old Afghan conflict, but he imposed no timeline on the commitment, saying "a core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions."

"From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating [militant Islamist group Islamic State, or] ISIS, crushing Al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge," Trump said.

He did not offer "talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities." He also chided Pakistan for allegedly providing "safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond," pledging to "change the approach and how to deal with" Islamabad.

Here are five key takeaways from Trump's speech at the Fort Myer military base near Washington:

1. From Rapid Withdrawal To Uncertain Time Frame

In outlining his new strategy, Trump recommitted the United States to an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan, saying U.S. forces must "fight to win" the war.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly called for a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He said the war was a huge waste of U.S. "blood and treasure," even declaring on Twitter, "Let's get out!"

INFOGRAPHIC: Surge, Drawdown, Increase? U.S. Troops In Afghanistan (click to view)

Trump acknowledged during his address that his "original instinct was to pull out," but he said he reconsidered because a U.S. exit would create a vacuum that Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) militants would "instantly fill."

Ahmad K. Majidyar, a Middle East and South Asia analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, describes the shift to "an enduring commitment without arbitrary withdrawal timelines" as a move that "will convey the right message to both friends and enemies in Afghanistan and the broader region."

2. Tougher Stance On Islamabad

Trump saved his strongest words for Pakistan, which U.S. officials accuse of sheltering the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, considered the most lethal Afghan extremist group. "We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens," Trump said. "[Pakistan] has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists."

Before Trump’s decision, proposals made by U.S. officials were reported to include the United States launching a review of whether to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. Such a designation would have triggered harsh U.S. sanctions, including a ban on arms sales and an end to U.S. economic assistance for Pakistan.

"What stood out from Trump’s speech was the straight talk about Pakistan's role in the Afghan war, America’s explicit expectations from Pakistan, and a warning after almost 15 years of dithering and ambiguity," says Omar Samad, an analyst and former Afghan ambassador who has advised senior Afghan officials.

3. Sending A Message To The Taliban

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Trump described himself as a "problem solver" in his typical bravado style and vowed to "win" the 16-year war. He said he was dealt a "bad and very complex hand" but "these problems will be solved -- I'm a problem solver -- and, in the end, we will win."

He used the word "victory" four times in his 25-minute speech; the word "win" on six other occasions.

Analysts think he may be sending a message.

"Former President Barack Obama's 2009 speech at West Point, which outlined his Afghanistan strategy, didn't mention the word 'victory' even once," says Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani analyst.

"President Trump -- by reiterating the words victory and win -- has sent a clear message to the Taliban and their backers that the U.S. won't settle for a stalemate," he adds.

4. No More Deadlines

When tuning in to Trump's speech, many expected to hear an announcement on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.

Trump, who has criticized his predecessors for setting deadlines for drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan but also hinted at an eagerness to extricate the United States from the Afghan conflict, declined to put a time line on expanded U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

Trump has previously said deadlines simply give the enemy an opportunity to bide their time.

"America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out," the U.S. president said. "I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will."

"Everyone expected an announcement on numbers," says Samad, "but to keep that factor ambiguous is a smart tactic, as is the case with end-of-mission dates."

5. Opening For India?

In a surprise overture that could cause shudders in Islamabad, Trump said he wanted India to "help us more with Afghanistan." He said he wanted to "further develop its strategic partnership with India" get New Delhi to send more economic assistance and development to Afghanistan.

New Delhi has poured billions of dollars into the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, trained hundreds of Afghan officers, and sent Kabul nonlethal weapons and planes.

But any expanded Indian role in Afghanistan could set off alarm bells in rival Pakistan, along with India a nuclear power that is always suspicious of New Delhi’s activities in the region.

Pakistan fears being sandwiched between to hostile neighbors and has attempted to establish pro-Pakistani governments in Afghanistan like the Taliban.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.