WASHINGTON – President Trump will outline a new Afghanistan strategy Monday that will clear the path to deploy several thousand more U.S. troops to help local forces in the conflict that has stretched on for nearly 16 years.
In a prime-time speech, Trump is also expected demand more assistance from NATO allies and the Afghanistan government itself.
Trump will address the nation at 9 p.m. ET from Fort Myer, Va., a military base just a few miles from the White House. In front of a group of soldiers, Trump will "provide an update on the path forward for America's engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia," the White House said in a statement.
The prime time address comes three days after Trump convened a high-level national security meeting at Camp David, capping a drawn-out review about how to address an issue that has frustrated Trump, just as it predecessor George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“The president has made a decision,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters during a Sunday flight en route to Jordan. "I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous.”
The new strategy is the result of months of debate in the White House over how to proceed in a war that the Pentagon has described as a stalemate.
The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, has said a few thousand additional troops are needed to turn the tide in the war that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The Pentagon received authority in June to send as many as 3,900 troops to Afghanistan, but Mattis has held off deploying them until the president authorized a broader strategy to cover the entire region.
There are currently 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 troops in 2010 and 2011, and several thousand additional forces from allied nations.
The additional forces could be used to return advisers to combat units during critical offensive operations against the Taliban.
In 2013 the Afghan government assumed the primary responsibility for the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
The continued cuts in U.S. forces under President Obama left enough troops in place to provide support at the top headquarters level, where administrative and logistical decisions are made, but U.S. advisers were removed from conventional combat forces.
The U.S. military also curtailed air support for Afghan forces since turning over major combat operations to government forces. Afghan government forces have taken heavy casualties as the Taliban has gained strength in remote parts of the country. And the Islamic State has also emerged as a growing threat.
That strategy will include diplomatic and economic efforts in the region in addition to military plans. The Trump administration has tried to get neighboring Pakistan to stop providing sanctuary to extremist groups operating in Afghanistan.
As Trump put the finishing touches on his speech, the State Department announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by phone Monday with officials in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. "The topic was how the United States would like to work with each country to stabilize South Asia through a new, integrated regional strategy," said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert.
Trump has also criticized what he has called the inability to win the war, both before and during his presidency.
As far back as 2012, the then-New York businessman tweeted, "why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!" The next year, Trump tweeted that "we should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first."
In 2015, in the early months of his presidential campaign, Trump said grudgingly that he would be willing to send in more troops out of concern that the Taliban would re-take the country.
"We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place," Trump told CNN in October of 2015. "It's a mess, it's a mess and at this point we probably have to [leave U.S. troops in Afghanistan] because that thing will collapse in about two seconds after they leave."
President George W. Bush authorized the initial invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2001, a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The ruling Taliban had provided safe harbor for the al Qaeda organization that carried out the attacks in the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C.
Obama, saying that Iraq distracted the Bush administration from Afghanistan, authorized the infusion of 30,000 more troops, bring the total to more than 100,000. At one point, he announced a plan to bring all the troops back home by the end of 2014, but later opted to keep a residual force there to assist with training and counter-terrorism operations.
Trump will outline his Afghanistan strategy on his first full day back at the White House after a 17-day "working vacation" based out of his golf club in Bedminister, N.J.
That vacation included intense criticism of Trump over his assertion that "both sides" were equally to blame for racial violence in Charlottesville, Va. Critics said Trump gave cover to white supremacists and neo-Nazis who organized a demonstration to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
Trump's speech on Afghanistan also comes just three days after the departure of senior adviser Steve Bannon, who had advocated a drawdown in Afghanistan and the use of private security services – neither of which appears to be an option at this point.
"Does the president articulate political objectives, yes or no?" said retired four star General Barry McCaffrey when asked what he'll be looking for in Monday's speech.
"If he just announces I’m going to have a new viceroy for the region. I’m going to add 4,000 troops. I’m going to get a new military leader on the ground. That’s all tinkering with the deck chairs. What are we trying to achieve?" continued McCaffrey.
McCaffrey said while adding as many as 4,000 additional troops is likely required to stop the erosion of the NATO position in Afghanistan, he doesn't believe it will make a significant difference in terms of solving the larger conflict.
"The problem with the Afghan army and police isn’t lack of squad training. It’s lack of any sense of fidelity to a central government and indeed the incompetence and corruption of their own leaders."
The U.S. troops likely to be added to the region would be used primarily to train and assist Afghan forces. However, McCaffrey said a large part of the problem remains lack of a unitary government or centralized power.
"The real question is what other levers of U.S. Power can you employ. To what extent can you involve the other regional actors, Pakistan, Iran, India and other actors.
Contributing: Oren Dorell
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