WASHINGTON – Cautioning against a "hasty withdrawal" from Afghanistan, President Trump outlined a revamped strategy for Afghanistan that will likely send several thousand more U.S. troops to the war that has dragged on for nearly 16 years.
Trump, who repeatedly criticized the war before he became president and once advocated full withdrawal, said in a prime-time address to troops gathered at Fort Myer, Va., that he shares the nation's weariness of "war without victory" in Afghanistan.
But simply withdrawing now, he continued, would leave the country vulnerable to a takeover by the kinds of violent extremists who organized the 9/11 attacks of 2001.
"My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all my life I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office," he said.
After studying the conflict with his national security team in recent weeks, the president said he now believes the security threats the U.S. faces in Afghanistan and the region "are immense" and "a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists – including ISIS and Al Qaeda – would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th."
The address came three days after Trump convened a high-level national security meeting at Camp David, capping a drawn-out review about how to address a war that the Pentagon has described as a stalemate – and frustrated Trump, just as it did predecessor George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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 Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has held off deploying them until the president authorized a broader strategy to cover the entire region.
Trump made clear that he himself would not advertise specific numbers of troops or plans for military activities in his speech, however. “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategies from now on. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will,” he said.
In defending his plan, Trump called for assistance from NATO allies, neighboring Pakistan, and the Afghanistan government itself, and he offered a caveat for the remaining U.S. war effort: "Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check."
Skeptics, including some Republicans, questioned the vagueness of Trump's plan, and whether it would make much difference in a war now well into its second decade.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., a libertarian who supports full withdrawal from Afghanistan, said before Trump's speech that the Afghanistan mission has "lost its purpose," and "I think it is a terrible idea to send any more troops into that war."
Another Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, tweeted that "there's nothing hasty about ending America's longest war," and that Trump "bowed to military-industrial establishment; doubled down on perpetual war."
Other Republican hawks backed the president's plan. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Trump took a a "big step" in the right direction. "The road ahead will not be easy," he said, "but America and the world cannot afford an Afghanistan that is under control of the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.”
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 includes 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.
Saying the U.S. "can no longer be silent" about safe havens, Trump said in his speech that "Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists."
As Trump put the finishing touches on his speech earlier Monday, the State Department announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by phone with officials in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Trump has also criticized what he has called the inability to win the war, both before and during his presidency, and how his predecessors handled the issue.
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 outlined 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 made reference to the controversy during his Afghanistan speech, telling the troops that the military can help the nation "to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation under God."
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.
Bannon has returned to his role of running Breitbart News. On Monday, the site published a story in which Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who also pushed the private security proposal, criticized Trump's decision.
Prince said he anticipated that Trump would accept the same "failed (Pentagon) paradigm" of the last 16 years.
"As interested in diversity as the Pentagon claims to be, they aren’t interested in diversity of opinions on how to end their longest war,” Prince told Breitbart.