President Trump on Monday announced that his administration’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan would be predicated upon unannounced military operations, nondisclosure of troop numbers, unfixed schedules, and “killing terrorists.”
But first and foremost his speech addressed and highlighted what eight months in office as President of the United States has revealed to critical points – he listens to the experts; his senior officers and strategic analysts. And as he revealed this in his opening statement indicated that his “original instinct was to pull out” but that “decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk at Oval Office”. President Trump’s South Asia strategic policy which includes Afghanistan was by far the most focused and target approach not seen in a Presidential speech seen since Ronald Reagan.
President Trump said his “original instinct was to pull out” of that country, but that after studying the conflict he came to certain “fundamental conclusions about America’s core interests in Afghanistan.” Secondly, he noted the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable, stating; “A hasty withdrawal, would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11th.”
The President also discussed how the U.S. must seek an honorable and enduring outcome in return for the numerous sacrifices of its Armed Forces. He noted the security threats we face are immense. Further, he pointed out another critical aspect of the war in Afghanistan, noting that the consequences of a quick exit from the Afghan territory would be “predictable and unacceptable” since militants (i.e.; radical-Islamist terrorists and insurgents) would fill the vacuum created by a “hasty withdrawal.” Meaning, like what occurred in Iraq after a successful surge between 2007-2009, President Obama announced a timeline for withdrawal and retreat, which left a void, hence a vacuum for a defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq to reestablish itself, and subsequently evolving into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, aka ISIS.
Another critical aspect presented by the President is that America will now be shifting from a “time-based approach” to “a conditions based approach”… meaning one based on conditions on the ground, regionally, which no doubt point to a wide range of consideration to include; political, diplomatic, economic and of course the military and terrorist situation. And, while President Trump refused to discuss the number of troops, or any policy change pertaining to “further military activities”, he stressed that no longer are we going to telegraph to the world, and certainly not our enemies, our strategy, plans and capabilities. He highlighted this by stating; “[I] will not say when we will attack, but attack we will!”, in what sounded eerily akin to a threat and to action.
Next, President Trump transitioned his speech to focus on the impact of radical-Islamic terrorism, addressing terrorism-related concerns, bringing up the September 11, 2001, attacks; saying “no one can forget” that tragedy. While, pointed out that after 17-years, he shared the Americans’ feeling of being “weary of war without victory”. Further, reminded us once again about the consequences of a rapid exit (from Afghanistan) noting that such an action and doing so would be and are predictable and unacceptable”. The President cited “the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure” since the Sept. 11th attacks and said the United States “mistakenly withdrew from Iraq” in 2011, again drawing reference to the consequences of doing so in Afghanistan.
As part of his national security commitment to the nation, President Trump stated that following his inauguration, ordered Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired four-star General and former Commander of U.S. Central Command, “to undertake a review” of the situation in Afghanistan in order to develop and establish a strategic policy that not only included Afghanistan itself, but one that must also include a wider regional approach and integrated strategy. Of course, this must include the impact, influence and internal effects on Afghanistan from its surrounding neighbors, which include; Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asians states, as well as Russia and China — though he did not address the latter two, but perhaps should have to a limited degree.
Speaking about Pakistan – Afghanistan’s neighbor to the immediate east – President Trump zeroed in on the role Pakistan plays in providing safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror and to over 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in the region, saying the U.S. needs to “change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan. He cited last week’s terrorist attack in Spain as evidence terrorists must be defeated. He emphasized the critical importance that is paramount that being that “we must stop the resurgence of these terror elements”. Further stating that; ‘it is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.” He went on to say; “We will defeat them and defeat them handily. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that allow terrorists to threaten America.”
With regard to the question concerning an increase in the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the President Trump stressed; “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.” The plan and strategy provides for an “expanded authority for forces” with a respective proportionate funding line, if necessary. The plan itself does not offer a specific troop increase for Afghanistan. The President stressed the importance of what we in the military refer to as OPSEC (or Operation Security), which means not openly or publicly announcing or revealing military strategy, operational plans and missions and troop deployments and movements. That specific number was allegedly leaked by perhaps either someone on the White House staff, in the Pentagon or by an analyst or staffer on Capitol Hill or member of Congress. Whoever leaked the figure used, equated the possible troop number of troops to the funding line, inferring that the President approved sending an additional 3,800-4,000 troops to Afghanistan. The type of, or timeframe for such was not given, only speculated on by whoever provided that information which is for military planning purposes; classified. The report – disclosed by Fox News cited a senior U.S. official – came a few hours before the President’s address on his strategy for Afghanistan.
Another aspect of the overall strategy, according to Trump, would be “the integration of all instruments of American power, diplomatic, economic and military, toward a successful outcome.” While he did not clarify how that would work, those of us who have studied national security strategy in our war colleges or in masters and or doctorate international security studies programs, understand quite well how the pillars of U.S. national power can be brought to bear as part of a strategic plan or strategy. Many have been calling for such in the effort to counter and destroy the ideology of radical Islamic terror and jihad.
Further, President Trump said the United States “will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society.” The President summed up that strategy tersely, saying; “We are not nation building again. Again noting and focusing on the emphasis that we are killing terrorists.” One of the key components that the President’s National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster has been advocating for the Afghan strategy has been a strategy that includes nation building and counterinsurgency. The President based on a number of other advisers had said an emphatic no, never again. Emphasizing that the U.S. combat effort would be focused on killing terrorists. President Trump described “terrorists who slaughter innocent people” as “nothing but thugs and criminals and predators and, that’s right, losers.”
Of critical importance President Trump declared that he had already lifted restrictions, known as Rules of Engagement aka ROEs that the Obama administration placed on our warfighters that prevented both the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy, defending our troops on the ground and conducting extremely sensitive and surgical strike and special operations direct action missions. The President emphasized that; “We will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan” and throughout the region, and again practicing good OPSEC and advoiding and details or specify how.
President Trump announced the new strategy at Army Post Fort Meyer in Arlington, Virginia, surrounded by soldiers, and spoke of the unity among forces trying to achieve one mission and called for the same unity among Americans.
The President opened his remarks genuinely stating “The soldier understands what we as a nation too often forget, that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all,” Trump said. “When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate.” He went on to stress; “All service members are brothers and sisters, they’re all part of the same family. It’s called the American family,” he said. “Let us find the courage to heal our divisions within.”
The President noted, that he inherited a mess in Afghanistan, but he said he knew what that when he ran for president and he vowed get results for the American people. He said, “I knew what I was getting into. One way or another these problems will be solved, noting I am a problem solver.” He promised clear objectives of destroying al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups while bringing more countries, including Pakistan, to help in the effort.
And while the President has pledged to put “America First,” keeping U.S. interests above any others, his national security advisers have warned that the Afghan forces are still far too weak to succeed without help. Even now, Afghan’s government controls just half the country. This will certainly be a critical part of the overall strategy, albeit not discussed in the speech last night, for obvious reasons.
President Trump’s speech concluded a months-long internal debate within his administration over whether to pull back from the Afghanistan conflict, as he and a few advisers were inclined to do, or to embroil the U.S. further in a war that has eluded American solutions for the past 17-years. Several times, officials predicted he was nearing a decision to adopt his commanders’ recommendations, only to see the final judgment delayed. “We’re not winning,” the President told advisers in July.
In turn, the president said that Pakistan should be doing more … “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens,” the president said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.” And he warned the Afghan government that it should not view U.S. support as a “blank check” – reiterating the American people expect to see real reforms and real results.” He further noted that; “America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress.”
The President has been previously skeptical about the merits of sending more troops, but stressed and also vowed to start winning wars – and his military advisers appear to have convinced him that any victory against the Taliban and ISIS factions would be impossible without more troops and resources. As a result, Defense Secretary Mattis said, following Friday’s meetings with all national security advisors; “I have directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy.” Mattis went on to say on Sunday that the administration’s new policy went beyond just Afghanistan and was a full “South Asia strategy.” In the end however, it should be noted that, for the first time, we have a definition of victory.