President Donald Trump and son Barron Trump board Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2017 in Morristown, N.J., for the return flight to Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Trump to Address the Nation on Afghanistan and South Asia

President Donald J. Trump will address the nation about his strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia this evening at 9:00 p.m. from Fort Myer in Arlington, VA.

After a seven-month review of options in Afghanistan, during which President Trump expressed frustration about continuing to follow a losing strategy, Trump and his advisors have decided upon a strategy. The decision emerged from a meeting he held Friday with Vice President Mike Pence, Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and other top advisors at the presidential retreat at Camp David, in rural Maryland.

The details of the Trump strategy havens been revealed but Defense Secretary Mattis offered a few comments about the strategy Sunday:

“The process was rigorous,” Mattis said Sunday, speaking to reporters in Amman, Jordan, as he visited the region. “And it involved all members of the Cabinet, of the national security staff, writ large.”

Without going into detail, Mattis said the strategy “involves significant allies,” presumably members of the NATO coalition that have fought at the U.S.’s side in Afghanistan since the invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“The president has made a decision,” Mattis said. “I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous.”

“It is a South Asia strategy,” he added. “It is not just an Afghanistan strategy.”

Reports say that the new strategy includes an increase in troop strength of 4,000 troops. That’s not really new because President Trump authorized the troop increase in June. Mattis refrained from building up the American force there until Trump agreed on a broader strategy.

Jonathan Swan of Axios reports that, “Trump’s top national security advisers all agree the only way they’ll win their missions in Afghanistan is to modestly increase troop levels, keep training the Afghan military, and keep a strong CIA and special forces presence to run aggressive counter-terrorism operations.” Mattis has reportedly “been using this line in meetings: ‘Mr. President, we haven’t fought a 16-year war so much as we have fought a one-year war, 16 times.’”

Trump’s advisors presented him with other scenarios, which included a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan (a continuation of Obama’s failed strategy), and counter-terrorism-only options. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon wanted Trump to gradually withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan and replace it with private paramilitary forces to hunt terrorists. Swain tells us that Mattis and company never took that idea seriously:

I’m told the Bannon strategy has never been part of the NSC paperwork, though the former chief strategist circumvented the official process and took his arguments directly to the president.

According to Swan, despite his reluctance, Trump “doesn’t want to be the president who loses the country to the terrorists.” Should Trump order a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, advisers believe he’d all but ensure the Taliban completes its takeover of the country. Al-Qaeda and ISIS would be allowed to flourish, and you’d have a terrorist launching pad similar to before 9/11.

President has told his advisors that while he thinks the war in Afghanistan has been a disaster, and the U.S. is losing, he thinks total withdrawal would be bad. Trump saw what happened when Obama withdrew from Iraq and believes that doing so precipitously in Afghanistan would allow the Taliban to take over, and Al-Qaeda would be resurgent.

The new strategy will only work if the Taliban is denied its sanctuaries in Pakistan. Reuters reports that Trump’s advisors are split on how much to pressure Pakistan:

Nicholson, McMaster and Lisa Curtis, senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, favor taking a strong hand with Pakistan to deal with Taliban militants using that country as a base from which to plot attacks in Afghanistan, current and former officials say.

On the other side are State Department officials and others at the Pentagon, including Dunford, who take a broader view of Pakistan’s strategic importance and are less convinced that harsh actions will secure more cooperation from Islamabad, they said.

I don’t see how we can win in Afghanistan unless the Taliban is denied safe haven in Pakistan and Iran and Russia are made to stop sheltering, training, funding and arming Taliban insurgents.

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Dan Spencer

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