WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump unveils his long-awaited strategy for Afghanistan on Monday, putting his mark on America’s longest war in a first formal address to the nation as commander-in-chief.
Having repeatedly described the 16-year Afghan war as a waste of time and money, Trump now looks set to announce the deployment of more troops in an evening prime-time speech.
Like his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump has taken months to decide between an array of difficult choices in Afghanistan.
A conflict that began in October 2001 as a hunt for the 9/11 attackers has turned into a vexed effort to keep Afghanistan’s divided and corruption-hindered democracy alive.
Throughout that time, Democrat and Republican US presidents have groped for a winning strategy – flitting between trying to chase down extremists, take difficult terrain or beat back a dogged Taliban insurgency.
Thousands of US troops have died and the war has cost US taxpayers trillions of dollars.
The Trump administration had originally promised a new plan by mid-July, but Trump was said to be dissatisfied by initial proposals to deploy a few thousand more troops.
His advisors went back to the drawing board, examining an expanded strategy for the broader South Asian region, including Pakistan – which holds some influence over the Taliban.
There are currently about 8,400 US troops supporting Afghanistan’s security forces in the fight, but the situation has remained as deadly as ever.
More than 2,500 Afghan police and troops have been killed already this year and hours before Trump’s remarks there was a stark reminder of the Taliban’s reach when a missile landed on a field in Kabul’s heavily fortified diplomatic zone.
Trump has been wary of international involvements but is eager to show success and steel in the realm of national security.
As president, Trump has surrounded himself with military generals – from his national security advisor to his chief of staff to his defence secretary – who have urged him to stay the course.
Trump for the first time also left the door open to an eventual political deal with the Taliban.
“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said.
“But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen,” he added, before vowing that “America will continue its support for the Afghan government and military as they confront the Taliban in the field.”
His Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went further, saying the United States would “stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions.”
While wary of international entanglements, Trump has also been eager to show success and steel in the realm of national security.
As president, he has surrounded himself with military generals — from his national security advisor to his chief of staff to his defense secretary — who have urged him to stay the course.
The Trump administration had originally promised a new Afghan plan by mid-July, but Trump was said to be dissatisfied by initial proposals to deploy a few thousand more troops.
His new policy will raise questions about what, if anything, can be achieved by making further deployments, or repeating the demands of previous administrations in more forceful terms.
In 2010, the United States had upwards of 100,000 US military personnel deployed to Afghanistan. Today that figure is around 8,400 US troops and the situation is as deadly as ever.
More than 2,500 Afghan police and troops have been killed already this year.
On Friday, Trump gathered generals and top aides at the bucolic presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, saying afterwards that “many decisions” had been made.
His options are said to include an increase in troop numbers – in the region of 4,000.
But questions remain about what, if anything, can be achieved by that deployment.
In 2010, the United States had upwards of 100,000 US military personnel deployed to Afghanistan.
“The Afghan government remains divided and weak, its security forces will take years of expensive [support of the US and allied nations] to become fully effective, and they may still lose even with such support,” said Anthony Cordesman of The Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The US leader will “provide an update on the path forward for America’s engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia,” the White House said in a statement.
In advance of the announcement, Vice President Mike Pence called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made calls to his Pakistani, Indian, and Afghan counterparts.
Top members of Congress were due to receive a briefing from senior administration officials.
Pakistan’s military brushed off speculation that Trump’s new strategy could include taking a stronger line against Islamabad, insisting the country has done all it can to tackle militancy.
“Let it come,” army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor told reporters, referring to Trump’s decision. “Even if it comes… Pakistan shall do whatever is best in the national interest.”
Trump’s announcement comes amid a month of serious turmoil for his administration, which has seen several top White House officials fired and revelations that members of Trump’s campaign are being investigated by a federal grand jury.
The decision on Afghanistan could have wide-ranging political repercussions for Trump, who faces a backlash from his base if he reverses a major campaign pledge and deepens US involvement.
One of the main voices arguing for withdrawal, Trump’s nationalistic chief strategist Steve Bannon, was removed from his post on Friday.
Among the advisors present at Camp David was new White House chief of staff John Kelly, a former Marine Corps general whose son died in Afghanistan in 2010.
Doubling down on the existing strategy will also signify the moment Trump takes responsibility for the success or failures that come with it.
And Americans will be looking closely at the tenor of his address. Controversial off-the-cuff remarks and statements strewn with falsehoods have become a hallmark of Trump’s presidency.
Many will be looking for evidence that a president who has shown little interest in policy has sufficiently pondered any decision to send more young Americans into mortal danger.
Trump’s Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed in Amman, Jordan Sunday that the administration had agreed on a new Afghan strategy after “rigorous” debate, but refused to provide details.
“Everyone who had equity was heard,” he said, including budget officials responsible for funding the effort.