In Pivot, Trump Vows to 'Win' in Afghanistan
President Trump’s first prime-time address Monday night leaned on themes of national unity, love of country, and America’s fears since 2001 of terrorist attacks.
Aware that his decision to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan would be controversial, the president wove together a narrative that implicitly acknowledged America’s own deep divisions and racial unrest, while describing a strategy for war-torn Afghanistan that he vowed would produce “an honorable and enduring outcome.”
Trump’s foreign policy speech, which will be book-ended Tuesday by a more free-wheeling re-election rally in Arizona, took pains to explain why, as president, he opted to continue America’s longest war rather than withdraw U.S. troops, as he advised President Obama to do in 2012 and 2013. As a civilian, Trump called the Afghanistan conflict “a complete waste.” As president, he approved a new surge above the 8,400 U.S. forces there now.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said while addressing a military audience assembled near Arlington National Cemetery.
“But all my life, I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” he continued. “… So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle.”
The president said America will “win” against terrorists operating in Afghanistan and South Asia, but he did not dwell on why his approach will make it possible for the United States to eventually pull its forces out. With his advisers, Trump has spent months weighing U.S. options in Afghanistan, reluctantly agreeing with the current and former generals who advise him that ending U.S. support now would undermine the goal of reducing global terror threats.
Most pollsters stopped asking Americans about the Afghanistan War after 2015. The public understood that Afghanistan remained on shaky footing, beset by internal frictions, wobbly governance and corruption. Al-Qaeda’s influence was overtaken by fears of ISIS. Americans continued to debate the differences between containment and victory. More than 2,000 American have died in Afghanistan since 2001.
Trump noted the risks of additional U.S. casualties and the necessity of military sacrifice after boasting anew about his superior ability to resolve the nation’s most intractable problems.
“When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand, but I fully knew what I was getting into: big and intricate problems,” Trump said. “But, one way or another, these problems will be solved -- I'm a problem solver -- and, in the end, we will win.”
Trump left many details about “the end” unstated. He did not quantify the number of troops he agreed to send, and offered vague descriptions of squeezing the Taliban into reconciliation and pressuring Pakistan to end tolerance of terror groups operating within its borders. He repeated his view that setting public deadlines for benchmarks and progress only emboldens America’s enemies.
The president called Pakistan an ally, but an unreliable one, and warned that continued U.S. aid was on the chopping block.
“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump said. “But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials.”
Although Trump said U.S. aid to Pakistan “will change,” a senior administration official briefing reporters before the speech described a reduction in aid as “under consideration.”
Trump said that continuing a war that began as a hunt for al-Qaeda under President Bush, and became a policy to help the Afghan government stand up to protect the Afghan people under Obama would conclude under his leadership in “victory.”
The strategy he outlined encompasses his predecessors’ approaches, minus Obama’s set timetables for troop withdrawals. Trump said U.S. economic support would continue for “the good people of Afghanistan.”
“From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge,” Trump added.
The president’s remarks won praise from Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly from key lawmakers such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have urged the administration to more quickly define a strategy for Afghanistan.
McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Trump took a "big step in the right direction" Monday night, but he encouraged a more sustained effort by the president to sell the American public on the U.S. role in the region.
"He must speak regularly to the American people, and to those waging this war on their behalf, about why we are fighting, why the additional sacrifices are worth it, and how we will succeed," McCain said, adding that his committee would hold hearings in September to review the administration’s policies.
Most Republicans who praised the speech applauded the decision to avoid a timetable for withdrawing troops, agreeing with Trump's assertion that troop level decisions should reflect conditions on the ground rather than a specific timeline.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, in praising Trump's address, said the term the president used -- "principled realism" – summed up the commander-in-chief’s evolving foreign policy doctrine.
Democrats, who mostly criticized the substance -- or, as they argued, the lack of substance -- in Trump's address, disagreed with the policy of increasing troop levels without a set time frame. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi criticized Trump for departing from his previous calls during Obama’s second term to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, describing the president’s approach as a commitment into perpetuity with few benchmarks for success. She joined several Democratic colleagues Monday in faulting the address for its lack of specifics.
"When President Trump says there will be no ceiling on the number of troops and no timeline for withdrawal, he is declaring an open-ended commitment of American lives with no accountability to the American people," she said.
Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who faces a difficult re-election race next year, echoed those concerns. "A commitment to 'win' is not a clear strategy, and our troops deserve more," Brown said.
GOP praise was not universal, with some lawmakers who generally disapprove of military intervention echoing the worries expressed by Democrats. Sen. Rand Paul said the mission in Afghanistan "has lost its purpose" and called it a "terrible idea" to send more troops. Rep. Justin Amash, a frequent Trump critic, tweeted that the president "bowed to the military-industrial establishment," referring to the current and former generals who are shaping Trump’s evolving global policies at the Pentagon and on the White House staff.
Heeding lessons from previously botched policy rollouts, senior administration officials briefed key lawmakers Monday ahead of the president's address. Speaker Ryan, who praised Trump’s Afghanistan strategy during a town-hall event broadcast by CNN immediately after Trump's remarks, said he was briefed several times.
Pelosi spoke with Vice President Mike Pence Monday evening. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke with Defense Secretary James Mattis; Sen. Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, conferred with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.