After repeatedly criticizing the war in Afghanistan for years, President Donald Trump in a primetime speech Monday night said he was increasing the US military presence in the country.
In an address to military members in Virginia, Trump said he sympathized with Americans who were “weary of war without victory” and said he shared “the American people’s frustration” with a “foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives trying to rebuild countries in our own image.”
He also acknowledged the reversal in his decision to increase the American troop presence in a country he had previously called for the US to exit.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump said.
“So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David, with my Cabinet and generals, to complete our strategy,” he said.
Lamenting that he was dealt a “bad and very complex hand,” the president said several factors led him to implement “a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.”
Trump cited the troop drawdown in Iraq, which he argued allowed the Islamic State to gain ground in the country, as well as a perceived threat from terrorists in Pakistan. He also called on other US allies to pitch in, singling out India as a trade partner.
Trump also insisted that Afghanistan strategy would be conducted in a manner that was coherent with his campaign vision, saying he would not give timetables for withdrawal or troop levels and emphasizing repeatedly that the US military would not focus on “nation-building,” saying Afghanistan needed to meet military and economic goals to ensure continued US support.
“We are not nation-building again,” Trump said. “We are killing terrorists.”
Moments later, he added: “We will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interest. We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward.”
The speech came after months of deliberation in which Trump considered various scenarios.
They included deploying additional troops, shifting to a CIA-led counterterrorism operation, leaving behind a military force primarily made up of private security forces, and pulling out of Afghanistan completely. Some of the more nationalist-leaning figures in his administration, including the recently ousted chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had pushed for a drawdown or complete pullout.
Eventually, after a meeting at Camp David last week, the president settled on a policy that would deploy additional US forces but attempt to persuade allies like Pakistan to crack down on terrorists. Many of the retired generals in Trump’s immediate orbit – including chief of staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis – reportedly pushed for the plan.
Democrats criticized Trump’s speech for failing to deliver any concrete policy changes.
Following the president’s speech, the Democratic National Committee blasted out a press release titled “Trump Announces New Afghan Strategy, Without Actually Announcing A Clear Strategy,” listing popular tweets about the president’s reluctance to disclose any details of his Afghanistan troop increase.