What to expect as Trump unveils his decision on Afghanistan

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A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the rotor wash of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 20, 2014.
A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the rotor wash of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 20, 2014. 

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

President Donald Trump will unveil his strategy for Afghanistan on Monday, putting his mark on America's longest war in his first formal address to the nation since becoming commander in chief. 

Having repeatedly pledged to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan after 16 frustrating years of conflict, Trump looks set to ease his opposition and heed calls from his top generals for the United States to stay the course in his evening speech.

What began in October 2001 as a hunt for those responsible for the 9/11 attacks has turned into an effort to keep Afghanistan's divided and corruption-hindered democracy alive.

Thousands of US troops have died battling insurgents, and the war has cost US taxpayers trillions of dollars.

Victory against Taliban — and now ISIS — militants remains far from certain, despite that high cost.

"The Afghan government remains divided and weak, its security forces will take years of expensive US and allied support to become fully effective, and they may still lose even with such support," said Anthony Cordesman of The Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Trump has been wary of international involvements, but is eager to show success and steel in the realm of national security.

Like his predecessor Barack Obama, he has taken months to decide between an array of difficult choices in Afghanistan.

The administration had originally promised a new plan by mid-July, but Trump was said to be dissatisfied by initial proposals to deploy a few thousand more troops.

His advisors went back to the drawing board, examining an expanded strategy for the broader South Asian region, including Pakistan, which holds some influence over the Taliban.

The options are said to include an increase in troop numbers — something on the order of about 4,000 more US soldiers.

“If the rumors are true and [Trump’s plan is] only going to [involve] 3,000 to 5,000 people, that doesn’t seem to warrant a large announcement to me,” said Brian McGough, a combat-wounded veteran who served in the initial invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. “This ... has been going on for years in Afghanistan — we send more people to help, we bring people home.”

McGough says that the hype around the announcement “kind of begs the question: Are we looking at this as a distraction?”

There are about 8,400 US and 5,000 NATO troops currently supporting Afghanistan's security forces, but the situation has remained deadly.

More than 2,500 Afghan police and troops have already been killed this year.

McGough says additional troops will not solve the underlying problems in Afghanistan.

“One of the issues I saw [while in Afghanistan] is a lack of infrastructure … that has only been compounded by years and years of war. That infrastructure makes it hard for people to communicate in certain ways across the country… and thrive as a country that would be able to walk away from terrorism or get away from that types of thinking,” McGough said. “We can put more boots on the ground but I'm not sure it's going to help anything. You're trying to change people's minds through the tip of a sword which you know hasn't helped yet.”

Trump will unveil his decision at 9:00 p.m. EST in an address to the nation delivered in front of US troops at Fort Myer, located just over the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia.

Trump's Defense Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday that the administration had agreed on a new strategy after “rigorous" debate, but refused to provide any details.

"I'm very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous, and did not go in with a pre-set condition in terms of what questions could be asked and what decisions could be made," Mattis said.

"Everyone who had equity was heard," he said, including budget officials responsible for funding the effort.

McGough says he’s confident the President received input from various individuals, including his generals.

“But when it comes down to it, they are generals and their job is to essentially follow orders and to make this happen,” McGough said. “I’m sure that [the generals] have thought about it and there's some really smart generals out there. But haven't really smart generals been thinking about this for years?"

Afghan writer, Qais Akbar Omar, says he’s frustrated that US officials do not appear well-informed when it comes to his country, even after 16 years of war. “Do we have anyone there,” he asks, “who actually understands the country, the people, the history?”

He suggests many could benefit from going online and reading Wikipedia, “and get a sense of what has been going on for the past — forget the thousands of years of history — but the past 40 to 50 years.

Omar is author of "A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story," about his life growing up there, and escaping the Taliban.

He says some of his friends and family members are in the process of leaving the country. “They think their future is very bleak, and there’s nothing left for them.”

But at the same time, he says, other friends and members of his family “want to stay there. They are very optimistic and hopeful.”

Omar believes the new generation — the Millennials — is the most hopeful. Many have studied abroad and returned and are trying to build their own businesses. He also highlights the importance of TV and social media, for spreading knowledge, including how people in other Muslim countries, like Turkey, live such different lives.

Journalist David Rohde says the situation in Afghanistan is not good. “It’s deteriorating,” he says. “The Taliban are taking ground. There’s an unclear American commitment. And the government of President [Ashraf] Ghani is increasingly paralyzed.”  

Rohde knows the conflict in Afghanistan intimately, having reported on it from the beginning, in the weeks after 9/11. He was even held captive by the Taliban for right months in 2008 and 2009.

Rohde points out that the new policy is a dramatic reversal for Donald Trump, who promised a withdrawal while on the campaign trail.

In his analysis, Rohde says another 4,000 US troops will not make a significant difference. “This is a muddle-through strategy,” says Rohde. “Some would argue that it would be better to either make a major troop increase ... or pull out.”

Rohde says many are worried it could lead to more deaths, but no change in the overall situation.

“It doesn’t deal with the core issue,” says Rohde, “which is an effort to engage with the countries in the region — primarily Pakistan, but also Iran and Russia — that are destabilizing Afghanistan. And until you address that regional dynamic diplomatically, 4,000 troops won’t make a difference. And as Barack Obama saw, 100,000 troops won’t make a difference.”

Agence France-Presse reporting was used in this story. 

In Conflict & JusticeConflictPoliticsGlobal PoliticsGlobal Security.

Tagged: AsiaNorth AmericaAfghanistanUnited States.