ARLINGTON, Va. – President Donald Trump on Monday laid out goals for the war in Afghanistan, saying he will not announce dates or troop levels but “from now on victory will have a clear definition.”
In a primetime speech, Trump said those objectives will include “obliterating ISIS” and “preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan.” To achieve these goals, Trump said he would expand authority for the US to target criminal and terrorist networks in Afghanistan.
Still, Trump warned that he was not offering a blank check of US support to Afghanistan, insisting that the country will have to continue to show a serious commitment and strides toward addressing persistent issues like corruption.
“Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open,” Trump promised.
Trump opened his speech by addressing wounds and divisions at home in another attempt to clean up his response to Charlottesville.
Without specifically mentioning the violence in Virginia, the President urged Americans to unite and pointed to US service members of an example of transcending racial, ethnic and other divisions in American society.
“They’re all part of the same family. It’s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag and live according to the same law. They are bound together by common purpose, mutual trust and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other,” Trump said.
Trump added: “Love for America requires love for all its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no tolerance for bigotry.”
“We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”
The speech comes as Trump becomes the third US president to put his imprint on the 16-year war in Afghanistan, as he reveals his plans to shape the future of the American war effort and broader regional strategy.
Trump said a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan is not feasible, pointing to the lessons the US learned from Iraq, where a vacuum allowed ISIS to grow in the wake of the American withdrawal from that country.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump said. “We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake we made Iraq.”
Trump drew on his characteristically blunt language as he talked about the terrorists the US is confronting in Afghanistan and around the world and vowed the US will “defeat them handily.”
“They are nothing but thugs and criminals and predators and, that’s right, losers,” Trump said. “We will defeat them and defeat them handily.”
Trump was explicit in saying he will not announce dates of military operations in advance. Trump went on to say he will not discuss troop levels or further plans for military activities, echoing a promise he made on the campaign trail.
“I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will,” Trump said.
The address at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, a US military base adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, is the most significant national security speech of Trump’s presidency to date and will reflect the outcome of months of internal administration deliberations to decide the scope of the ongoing military, financial and diplomatic commitment to the longest-running war in US history.
Trump has previously expressed reservations about the seemingly endless US military commitment in Afghanistan and questioned the objectives of staying there.
The President reached a decision on the future of the US strategy after a final round of deliberations with his national security team at Camp David on Friday.
Trump’s decision comes as Taliban militants have been resurgent in recent months, posting a series of recent gains against Afghan government forces, which are backed by a US-led coalition of NATO allies. ISIS, through a regional affiliate known as ISIS-K, has also established a foothold in Afghanistan in recent years, carrying out a series of deadly terrorist attacks and coordinating assaults with the Taliban.
About 8,400 US troops are currently deployed to Afghanistan. The majority — about 6,900 — are assigned to the NATO mission to train and advise Afghan security forces alongside approximately 6,000 troops from other NATO countries. The remainder of US forces in Afghanistan carry out counterterrorism missions in the country.
The US officially ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014 and shifted its mission to focus on counterterrorism operations and training Afghan forces. But President Barack Obama never managed the full complete withdrawal of US forces that he had sought during his time in office.
The Trump administration, though, has been looking beyond troop numbers, mulling a readjustment of the US’s objectives — evaluating everything from its support for a centralized Afghan government to its metrics for success in fighting the Taliban and ISIS-K.
The administration has also been developing a strategy to address the growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan and to crack down on terror networks in neighboring Pakistan.
Impact of Bannon-McMaster fight
The months-long debate that preceded Trump’s decision on the war’s fate frequently burst into public view, pitting two top White House advisers against each other: National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Steve Bannon, the President’s chief strategist who was pushed out on Friday, shortly before Trump huddled with his national security team at Camp David.
While McMaster has pushed more hawkish proposals, Bannon has led the internal pushback against those options, arguing that the US should not increase its military and financial commitments after 16 years of war in Afghanistan.
Bannon’s arguments in internal deliberations often echoed Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, when he argued against US military interventionist policies and argued the US should instead focus its resources on domestic projects.
It was unclear how Bannon’s ouster affected the final round of deliberations.
But as Trump mulled a final decision on Friday, he relied on the counsel of several current and former military officers.
Beyond McMaster and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Trump also relied on a pair of retired Marine Corps four-star generals, his Defense Secretary James Mattis and his newly installed chief of staff John Kelly.
Kelly’s son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, a Marine, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, making Kelly the highest-ranking military officer to suffer the loss of a child in combat.
Several of the President’s advisers on the Afghanistan war have children currently enlisted in the US military, including Vice President Mike Pence, Bannon and Kelly.
Mattis told reporters on Sunday that Trump reconvened his national security team several times before arriving at at a decision on Afghanistan because he “kept asking questions on all of them, and wanting more and more depth on it.”
“It caused us to integrate the answers more. In other words, the more pointed he became about what he would look at with that option versus this one, meant we could better define what are the relationships with allies or what are the level of effort needed and what’s the cost, the financial cost, and so we just kept sharpening those,” Mattis said.