WASHINGTON: Faced with the stark possibility that the U.S.-backed Afghanistan regime could fail, President Donald Trump unveiled Monday what he described as a new approach to halt “the re-emergence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America.”
In a major reversal of his longstanding doubts about U.S. involvement in the 16-year conflict in Afghanistan, Trump said “from now on, victory” in Afghanistan “will have a clear definition,” which includes crushing Islamic State militants and al-Qaida terrorists in that war-torn country and “stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”
“Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made,” Trump said in a nationally televised address in prime time on the East Coast.
Although the language of Trump’s speech was bold and decisive, he was vague about many of the details. Although officials are expecting Trump to send an additional 4,000 troops to reinforce the 8,400 Americans in Afghanistan, he declared that he has “said many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military operations.”
“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said.
Trump spoke before a largely military audience at the military base at Fort Myer in Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington. Among those gathered to listen to Trump’s speech were Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, first lady Melania Trump and White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
In a nod to his past calls to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, Trump said his “original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office – in other words, when you are president of the United States.”
But after a lengthy review with his top military advisers, Trump said he concluded “the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable.”
Pointing out that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in suburban Washington were planned in Afghanistan, Trump warned “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists – including ISIS and al-Qaida – would instantly fill, just as happened before” the 2001 attacks.
“I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense,” Trump said.
As part of what he described as a new strategy, Trump also said the United States will intensify pressure on Pakistan, whose intelligence services have been accused of supporting terrorist organizations that have launched attacks in Afghanistan.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
He also raised the specter of nuclear weapons from Pakistan or India’s arsenal falling into the hands of terrorists, saying “we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”
Trump’s decision is controversial, as many Americans are weary of the prolonged conflict, in which more than 2,300 American soldiers have been killed. But the president said the U.S. no longer is interested in nation-building; the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction this summer reported the U.S. has spent $714 billion for both combat operations and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
The same report showed that nearly 60 percent of the districts in Afghanistan are under government control. But the Afghan army has been unable to seize the nearly 40 percent of the land controlled by the Taliban, which has sponsored a bloody insurgency against the government.