Before he became president, Donald Trump rarely talked about Afghanistan. When he did, he often called for a swift end to America’s longest war, said an Associated Press report on Tuesday.
Now that he’s in office — the third American president to oversee the conflict — few in his administration talk of ending the war abruptly.
In an address to the nation Monday night, the president is expected to announce that the war will press on, with more US troops potentially headed to Afghanistan. Trump appears to have aligned behind a Pentagon plan for more forces, one as much aimed at stabilizing the Afghan government and breaking a stalemate with the Taliban as a speedy end to the fighting.
If the president follows that path, it will mark 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 skeptic of US 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.
Now Trump leads Washington and that question falls for him to answer. He has seized on his mantra “America First,” but so far has spent little time explaining how that message translates to US involvement in a war across the globe, likely for years to come, said the AP.
“Most people agree to make this work, to be successful, we’re going to need to be in Afghanistan a few more years at least,” said retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation. “That is typically not President Trump’s style. He likes to get a quick victory.”
President George W. Bush plunged US troops into Afghanistan after 9/11 but the war languished as American military attention focused on Iraq. President Barack Obama ratcheted up to 100,000 troops early in his administration, but hoped to wind down the war before he left office. He ultimately conceded that security concerns would require him to hand off the war to another president.
Trump faces many of the same challenges in Afghanistan that have bedeviled his predecessors and left some US officials deeply uncertain about whether victory is possible — and if it is, what such a victory would entail.
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 US troops in Afghanistan, we couldn’t secure the whole country,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser.
The US currently has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials have proposed plans to send in nearly 4,000 more to boost training and advising of the Afghan forces and bolster counter-terrorism operations against the Taliban and an ISIS terror group affiliate trying to gain a foothold in the country.
To reach his decision, Trump held extensive discussions with top advisers in the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community, and heard directly from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Vice President Mike Pence. It was a more deliberate process than has been typical for Trump, who has shown a propensity to make impulsive decisions.
And it suggests that from his perch in the Oval Office, the conflict looks more complicated that it did when Trump was weighing in from the sidelines.
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!”