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Trump Sidesteps Afghan Troop Announcement, Warns Pakistan Over Terrorist 'Safe Havens'


U.S. President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., on August 21.
U.S. President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., on August 21.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sidestepped an announcement on U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan during a major address to the nation and warned Pakistan over its alleged support for extremist groups in the region.

Trump backtracked from his campaign pledge to end the United States' longest war as he appeared to commit the country to an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan.

Outlining his new strategy for Afghanistan and the South Asia region, Trump said he would not "talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities."

Speaking at the Fort Myer military base near Washington, D.C., on August 21, Trump vowed "to win" the war and said his strategy will not be based on "arbitrary timelines," but conditions on the ground.

Some analysts praised Trump's tough stance on Pakistan while others criticized what they called a strategy that was short on details and reminiscent of former President Barack Obama's failed policies.

The president warned that Washington will no longer tolerate Pakistan offering "safe havens" to extremist groups like the Afghan Taliban, a claim Islamabad denies.

"We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens," Trump said. "Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists."

"Of the three U.S. presidents who have had to grapple with Pakistan's undeclared war on Afghanistan, Trump's words were the clearest in pointing out Pakistan as part of the problem," said Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani analyst.

No 'Arbitrary' Timelines

Trump also said the United States was in Afghanistan not for nation building, but rather, "we are killing terrorists."

He also said the United States needed a plan for an "honorable and enduring outcome" in Afghanistan, and added that a rapid exit would have "unacceptable" consequences.

Following Trump's address, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggested the United States and other countries would send more troops to Afghanistan.

"I will be in consultation with the secretary-general of NATO and our allies -- several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers,” Mattis said.

"The Trump administration rightly believes that an enduring commitment without arbitrary withdrawal timelines will convey the right message to both friends and enemies in Afghanistan and the broader region," said Ahmad K. Majidyar, a South Asia expert.

Majidyar said Trump’s new approach appears to comprise elements of both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies. He said the United States will continue to train, equip, and assist the Afghan security forces while giving more authority to the Pentagon to target regional and international terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan that pose a direct threat to U.S. security.

Trump has long been skeptical of U.S. policy in the region, where the United States has been at war since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

During his address, Trump said his "original instinct was to pull out" from Afghanistan, but he reached a different conclusion after studying the issue once he was in office.

He also said U.S. support for the Afghan government was not a "blank check" and urged Kabul to implement "real reform and progress."

"Compared with his predecessors, Trump has outlined a more comprehensive and clearer strategy in Afghanistan," said Omar Samad, an Afghan analyst. "Most importantly, he has distinguished who is friend and who is foe."

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Trump's strategy moved the United States past the Obama administration's "failed strategy of merely postponing defeat" in Afghanistan.

During his address, Trump left the door open to an eventual peace deal with the Taliban, although he added that "nobody knows if or when that will ever happen."

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington stood "ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions."

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid dismissed Trump's remarks as "old" and "unclear."

"If America doesn't withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, soon Afghanistan will become another graveyard for this superpower in the 21st century," Mujahid said in a statement.

Analyst Samad said Trump sent a clear message to the Taliban and their backers that the United States won't settle for a stalemate. "Finally, the Taliban were told that America intends to do what it takes to win," he said.

The Taliban has repeatedly urged the United States and its allies to leave Afghanistan, ruling out peace talks with the Kabul government as long as foreign forces remain on Afghan soil.

More U.S. Boots On The Ground?

Trump announced a strategic review soon after taking office in January, and U.S. officials have said he has privately questioned whether sending more troops was prudent.

He told top officials in July that "we aren't winning...we are losing" the war in Afghanistan to militant groups like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic State (IS).

Options that were considered by U.S. leaders reportedly ranged from pulling U.S. military troops out of Afghanistan entirely, to drawing down troop numbers in favor of outside security contractors, to sending in more troops and stepping up efforts to defeat the Taliban and other militants battling the Afghan government.

Trump's decision came after he met with his national security team at the Camp David presidential retreat on August 18 to discuss the conflict.

Earlier this year, reports suggest the president sought to give U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, opening the door for future troop increases requested by General John Nicholson, the top U.S. Army commander in Afghanistan.

Media reports said Mattis sought greater clarity on Trump's strategy but also recommended an increase of up to 4,000 troops to help strengthen the Afghan army.

Nicholson said in February he needed "a few thousand" more troops, with some potentially drawn from Washington's NATO allies.

U.S. military and intelligence officials are concerned that a withdrawal or reduced presence of U.S. forces would give the Taliban the upper hand in the current standoff and allow Al-Qaeda and IS militants to use Afghanistan as a base for plotting attacks on the United States and its allies.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after invoking NATO's Article 5 clause on collective self-defense following the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The U.S.-led campaign overthrew the Islamist Taliban government, which was hosting Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his group's training camps.

U.S. forces have remained bogged down there through the presidencies of George W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump.

"I took over a mess, and we're going to make it a lot less messy," Trump said when asked earlier this year about Afghanistan.

Clearer Objectives?

"It is quite striking that after an eight-month strategic review, the end result is a policy that sounds remarkably like the policies that have been used -- and in many ways failed -- in the past," said Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Omar Samad, an Afghanistan expert in Washington, said a combination of factors had ensured the United States' failure so far to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan.

"The U.S. has had an on-off engagement with Afghanistan," he said. "There have been distractions by other hot spots like Iraq, and Washington has not focused on the real source of the threat in the form of the Taliban's external sanctuaries and support systems in Pakistan."

"The strategy has been ineffective because it hasn't stated clear objectives,” Kugelman added. "The initial objectives -- removing Al-Qaeda safe havens and removing its Taliban hosts from power -- were clear and achieved very quickly. But ever since then the U.S. has struggled to articulate why it's in Afghanistan and why Americans continue to die."

The Taliban has repeatedly urged the United States and its allies to leave Afghanistan, ruling out peace talks with the Kabul government as long as foreign forces remain on Afghan soil.

The strategy in Afghanistan was complicated by internal differences over whether the United States should take a harder line toward Pakistan for failing to shut down alleged Afghan Taliban sanctuaries and arrest Afghan extremist leaders.

U.S. and Afghan officials have said the Afghan Taliban are supported by elements of Pakistan's military and top intelligence agency, a charge Islamabad denies.

Before Trump’s decision, the proposals under discussion were reported to include the United States launching a review of whether to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism if it didn't pursue senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, considered the most lethal Afghan extremist group.

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.

"Without making Pakistan face the consequences of its actions, its behavior won’t change towards Afghanistan," Pakistani analyst Taqi said.

A U.S. report found earlier this year that the Taliban controls or contests control of about 40 percent of the country. Furthermore, Afghan security forces are facing an increasing presence of IS militants in the country.

Since peaking at about 100,000 troops in 2010-11, the U.S. force has diminished. The United States currently maintains 8,400 troops in Afghanistan -- a cap set last year by then-President Obama.

However, there are at least another 2,000 U.S. troops -- mostly special forces -- assigned to fight militant groups such as the Taliban and IS.

About 5,000 non-U.S. NATO forces are still in the country.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

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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.