President Donald Trump unveiled a strategy for Afghanistan that continues the U.S. military presence indefinitely, in a war that has stretched to almost 16 years.
Trump would not say how many more troops would be sent to the country — reports were that 4,000 more personnel were under consideration — and he declined to provide other details.
“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary time tables, will guide our strategy from now on,” Trump said in a speech from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va. He called his approach “principled realism,” but declined to say what the future conditions are where withdrawal would be appropriate or what, specifically, would define success.
“I will not say when we will attack, but attack we will,” he said.
He faulted his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for a strategy that set a timeframe for when troops would be drawn down in the war-torn country.
“I’ve 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,” he said. “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.”
He said that military commanders will have more authority in the field to make decisions.
“Micromanagement from Washington DC does not win battles,” Trump said.
All of the broadcast networks carried the speech live.
A big question is just how much public support Trump will get for the strategy. With declining poll numbers, his administration was depending on the primetime address to draw an audience and built trust for his approach, and even Trump acknowledged that Americans were weary of war. But the speech also was a test for Trump after the fallout from the Charlottesville unrest and the anger over his remarks afterward.
Even before he formally unveiled his plan, Breitbart.com, being run again by Steve Bannon after his departure on Friday as Trump’s chief strategist, ran a series of stories critical of the strategy, noting that critics had called it “an extension of the failed status quo.”
At the time that Trump gave the speech, Breitbart ran a story on Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, who said that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster had blocked him from even debating the merits of his proposal to privatize security. Bannon has been a proponent of curbing U.S. military involvement, but the article suggested that with his departure, McMaster has been able to convince Trump to agree to send more troops.
Trump, though, insisted, that “we are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” “We will fight to win,” he added.
“The stronger the Afghan security forces become the less we will have to do,” Trump said. “Afghans will secure and build their own nation, and define their own future. We want them to succeed.”
Yet he said that the U.S. would not provide a “blank check” and that the U.S. commitment was not “unlimited.”
“We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in far away lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image – those days are now over,” he said. “Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.”
Trump had long opposed increasing troops in Afghanistan. He tweeted in 2012 that it “was time to get out” of the country. “We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.”
Trump did say in his speech that “my original instinct was to pull out,” but “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
Trump also used the start of his speech to make a call for unity in light of the divisions following the unrest in Charlottesville. Trump himself was widely criticized for saying that “both sides” were responsible for the violence, and said that some “very fine people” were among the demonstrators.
“There is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate,” Trump said.
He added, “We cannot remain a force of peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has been critical of Trump, called the strategy a “big step in the right direction.”