Trump backtracks on Afghan troop pullout

Donald Trump promises an end to nation building but ramping up a strategy of "killing terrorists" in a new plan for Afghanistan

U.S. President Donald Trump announces his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
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Donald Trump cleared the way for an increase in US troops in Afghanistan saying he had changed his campaign view on pulling out military forces and warning that a hasty withdrawal would allow extremists to flourish.

In a prime-time address, Mr Trump said that he had been dealt a “bad and very complex hand” by the outgoing Obama administration. He said that his new policy would be based on killing terrorists and not nation building.

“The American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan,” he said.

He accepted that his “original instinct” was to pull out, but said that the consequences of a rapid exit were both “predictable and unacceptable” and would allow extremists to use the country as a safe haven to attack the United States.

Mr Trump said that he was convinced by his national security advisers to strengthen the U.S. ability to prevent the Taliban from ousting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

The president declined to give numbers on any increase in troops although U.S. officials said before the speech they expect him to go along with a Pentagon recommendation for nearly 4,000 new troops. The US currently has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan.

“We will not take about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” he said in a prime-time address to the nation. “I will not say when we are going to attack but attack we will.”

Mr Trump said that his administration would also target Pakistan, saying it was unacceptable to harbour terrorists. He spoke of combating anti-terrorist financing and bolstering other non-military programmes to target the threat from militants.

The president said that reality of sitting in the Oval Office grappling with the issues that have outlasted two presidents had led to him overcoming his own doubts about the war that was prompted by the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. He said repeatedly on the campaign trail last year that the war was too costly in lives and money.

In November 2013, Trump said on Twitter: "We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out!"

The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, overthrowing the Taliban government. US troops have been present in the country since then and during the presidencies of George W Bush, Barack Obama and now Mr Trump.

The war in Afghanistan has been the longest foreign military conflict in American history. While the Bush administration ousted the Taliban government for harbouring Osama bin Laden, who was behind the 9/11 attacks, it was under the Obama administration that the Al Qaeda leader was found and killed in Pakistan in May 2011.

However, the war stymied the Obama administration, which committed to an increase of tens of thousands of US troops to reverse Taliban gains, then committed to a troop drawdown, which ultimately had to be halted.

In July 2016, the Obama administration announced that 8,400 troops will remain in Afghanistan rather than cutting back to 5,500 as originally planned.

The speech marked a victory for the military men increasingly filling Trump's inner circle and a stinging defeat for the nationalist supporters who saw in Trump a like-minded sceptic of U.S. intervention in long and costly overseas conflicts.

Chief among them is ousted adviser Steve Bannon, whose website Breitbart News blared criticism Monday of the establishment's approach to running he war.

"What Does Victory in Afghanistan Look Like? Washington Doesn't Know," read one headline.

Trump faces many of the same challenges in Afghanistan that have troubled his predecessors and left some U.S. officials deeply uncertain about whether victory is possible.

Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest countries and corruption is embedded in its politics. The Taliban is resurgent. And Afghan forces remain too weak to secure the country without American help.

"When we had 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, we couldn't secure the whole country," said Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama's deputy national security adviser.