(RFE/RL) — U.S. President Donald Trump 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, outlining his new strategy for Afghanistan and the South Asia region, 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 on August 21, Trump said his new strategy will not be based on “arbitrary timelines,” but conditions on the ground.
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 for terrorist organizations,” Trump said.
He also said the United States was in Afghanistan not for nation building, but rather, “we are killing terrorists.”
Trump also said the United States needs a plan for an “honorable and enduring outcome” in Afghanistan, and added that a rapid exit would have “unacceptable” consequences.
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.
He 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.
Trump told his 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 Jim 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 Five 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, Barack 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.
Omar Samad, an Afghanistan expert in Washington, says a combination of factors has 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 says. “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,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“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 inducing a meaningful change in Pakistan’s regional strategic and tactical calculus, a few thousand more U.S troops will not change much on the ground in Afghanistan,” says Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani analyst. “Without making Pakistan face the consequences of its actions, its behavior won’t change towards Afghanistan.”
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 Barack 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.
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