How President Trump Reversed Himself on Afghanistan

Aug 22, 2017

In his first primetime address to the nation, President Donald Trump reversed his campaign pledge to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan while laying out his most thorough explanation of his approach to the war.

Speaking from Fort Myer in Virginia, Trump plainly acknowledged that he was upending repeated calls dating back years to bring the troops home and instead spend the money rebuilding the U.S.

"My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts," Trump said. "But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office."

The address was a culmination of the most deliberative policy review of his disorganized presidency—an exception to the reigning chaos that highlighted the importance of order.

Trump reached his decision on the overall strategy at a Friday meeting at Camp David with his national security team, after considering a range of options from a new five-figure troop surge to complete withdrawal and replacement by private military contractors.

The middle-of-the-road approach he adopted seemed to follow the advice of Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, another sign of the waning influence of former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was ousted Friday after clashing for months with others in the White House.

The speech also included a long-overdue second cleanup of his much-criticized remarks on a violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, noting that members of the U.S. military "transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed and color to serve together."

Still, Trump stayed true to form. In keeping with his longtime criticism of giving the enemy advance notice, the President declined to give any specific numbers or timetables for his expansion of the military presence. Instead, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were briefed on his authorization of the deployment of as many as 4,000 additional troops to South Asia to fight terrorist groups and the Taliban.

“From now on, victory will have a clear definition,” Trump said, “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.” He also touted his efforts to "unleash" military commanders in the field, removing layers of approvals before sensitive strikes and loosening rules of engagements.

Taken together, the conditions for victory lay the foundation for an unbounded American presence in Afghanistan.

Trump followed his predecessors in calling for a more robust regional investment in Afghanistan, issued a dire warning to the corruption-beset Afghan government and to its neighbor, Pakistan, which he condemned for harboring terrorist groups. And Trump followed President Obama in trying to circumscribe the American role in Afghanistan to countering terrorism.

“We are not nation-building again,” he declared. “We are killing terrorists.”

Trump’s public shaming of Pakistan, highlighted the growing frustration of the American foreign policy establishment with that nuclear-armed country’s uneven commitment to combating extremism.

“Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people,” Trump said. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately.” The warning and Trump’s invocation of rising role for India in the region were sure to resonate in Islamabad.

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