Trump to expand US military intervention in Afghanistan

US reinforcements could start arriving in Afghanistan within days, a US commander in the region said in the wake of Donald Trump’s decision to raise the US stakes once more in the 16-year war.

In a televised address to troops at Fort Myer in Virginia on Monday night, Trump did not say how many more soldiers he was willing to send to Afghanistan, but he made it clear he was going to increase the US military presence there.

“The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory,” Trump said. “They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.”

US defence officials have pointed to a pending order for 3,900 soldiers, agreed by Trump in June to bolster the 8,400-strong US force that is already there, training and supporting Afghan troops and conducting counter-terror operations. The extra deployment had been delayed by the Pentagon pending agreement on an Afghan strategy.

After Trump’s speech, in which he said the new strategy would focus more on counter-terrorism and increase pressure on Pakistan to deny safe haven to terrorist and militant groups, the deployment is under way.

Gen Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, told reporters that the first reinforcements would arrive “pretty quickly”, indicating that could mean days or a few weeks at most.

According to Stars and Stripes, Votel said: “What’s most important for us now is to get some capabilities in to have an impact on the current fighting season.”

In outlining his policy on Afghanistan and south Asia, Trump did not say how long the new troops would stay, or what their ultimate objective was.

Before standing for the presidency and privately since entering the Oval Office, Trump had argued for a military withdrawal, but in his speech he made a rare admission that he had changed his mind.

In his own statement issued after Trump’s speech, the defence secretary, James Mattis, said he had ordered US military chiefs to “make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy” and that he would be talking to Nato allies, “several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers”.

“Together, we will assist the Afghan security forces to destroy the terrorist hub,” Mattis said.

In his speech, Trump declared there would be more onus on the Afghan government to perform better, in civilian and military terms, and on the Pakistani government to cut support for militants who find a haven along the Afghan border. Trump warned that Islamabad would have “much to lose” if it did not comply.

Trump repeatedly presented his ideas for south Asia as a radical departure from Obama administration policies, with a tighter focus on counter-terrorism, describing his approach as “principled realism”.

“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” he said. But the Fort Myer speech suggested that the tasks facing US soldiers and diplomats in the region would remain the same: attacking terrorist groups while trying to support the Afghan government’s own forces and attempting to put pressure on Kabul and Islamabad to help more.

In his address, Trump made a virtue of avoiding details, saying he would not repeat what he presented as the Obama administration’s mistake of signalling plans to US enemies. Instead, key decisions would be taken by military commanders and determined by “conditions on the ground and not arbitrary timetables”.

Sir Michael Fallon, the British defence secretary, welcomed the US commitment.

“In my call with Secretary Mattis yesterday, we agreed that despite the challenges, we have to stay the course in Afghanistan to help build up its fragile democracy and reduce the terrorist threat to the west,” he said on Tuesday.

The UK was involved in the Afghan conflict for 13 years, from 2001 to 2014. The last UK combat troops left Afghanistan in October 2014, but there are 500 British troops still based in the country, providing security in Kabul and training at the Afghan Officer Academy.
The UK has already offered to deploy another 85 troops by November at the request of Nato, which altogether has 13,000 troops in Afghanistan.
“It’s in all our interests that Afghanistan becomes more prosperous and safer: that’s why we announced our own troop increase back in June,” Fallon said.

Trump admitted that escalating the US war in Afghanistan had not been his initial instinct when he came to office. He scarcely mentioned Afghanistan during last year’s election campaign, but prior to entering the presidential race, he had vociferously argued for withdrawal. So had his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was fired on Friday after a fierce struggle in a divided White House.

Bannon had pushed for US troops to be replaced by private contractors but was outvoted by the serving and retired generals in the administration. He has returned to running the rightwing news outlet Breitbart, which filled its homepage on Tuesday with critical reports of Trump’s “flip-flop” on Afghanistan.

In an account of the White House wrangling, the Washington Post reported that one of the ways the national security adviser, HR McMaster, sought to persuade the president that Afghanistan could change was to show him a black-and-white photograph of Kabul in 1972, showing a westernised city with women walking around in miniskirts.

Trump admitted he had changed his mind on Afghanistan in his Monday night speech. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” the president said.

Much of the US effort will be dedicated to continuing to build up the Afghan security forces until they are able to fight the Taliban alone. The Obama administration had the same goal, and it remains a distant one.

Trump described a tougher line against the Pakistani government. Groups like the Haqqani network, which is both terrorist and criminal, have long been based in tribal lands in western Pakistan. Persuading the Pakistani security services to cut them off was an objective of both the Bush and the Obama administrations that was never achieved. Trump claimed he would succeed by being tougher on Islamabad.

“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour terrorists.”

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said punitive measures against Islamabad if it did not cooperate could include curbing US aid and military assistance, and dropping Pakistan’s status as a non-Nato US ally. Asked about the possibility of expanded drone strikes in Pakistan, Tillerson said: “We are going to attack terrorists wherever they live. If you are providing safe havens to terrorists, be forewarned.”

Tillerson acknowledged that the US and its allies might not be able to win the war in Afghanistan, but neither could the Taliban, and he called on the group to take part in peace talks with Kabul.

In a response to Trump’s speech, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said: “It seems America is not yet ready to end the longest war in its history. Instead of trying to understand ground realities, they still arrogantly believe in their force and might.”

Trump’s speech was welcomed by the Afghan government. However, under Trump’s plan, Kabul will also come under more pressure to reform its military and its corruption-rife bureaucracy.

“Our support is not a blank cheque,” Trump said. “Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes wide open.”

Efforts by previous administrations to pressure Kabul and Islamabad foundered on Washington’s need for both governments to survive and to continue to cooperate in the fight against terrorist groups. That limited US leverage. It was not immediately clear from Trump’s speech how he proposed to resolve that longstanding quandary.

As part of a regional approach, Trump said he would encourage India to play more of a role. However, he did not mention another, increasingly important player in Afghanistan – China.