WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump is likely to announce a modest increase in US troop numbers in Afghanistan when he lays out his strategy on Monday for the war there, America’s longest military conflict, a senior administration official said.
Trump will give a prime-time address to the nation at 9 p.m. (0100 GMT, Tuesday) to detail his view of the US role in Afghanistan, an issue that vexed his two predecessors.
With Taliban insurgent forces no nearer to defeat, the most likely outcome is that Trump will agree to sending more US forces as recommended by his senior advisers, the official said. Current US troop numbers are about 8,400.
Trump has long been skeptical of how the United States is fighting the war in Afghanistan, which was launched by President George W. Bush in October 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Trump announced a strategic review soon after taking office in January and has privately questioned whether sending more troops is wise, US officials said.
“We’re not winning,” he told advisers in a July meeting, questioning whether US Army General John Nicholson, who leads US and international forces in Afghanistan, should be fired, an official said.
But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has argued that a US military presence is needed to protect against a continuing threat from militants.
Earlier this year, Trump gave Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, opening the door for future increases requested by Nicholson. The general said in February he needed “a few thousand” additional forces, some potentially drawn from U.S. allies.
The United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban government for harboring al Qaeda militants as they plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. But US forces have remained bogged down there through the presidencies of Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump.
“I took over a mess, and we’re going to make it a lot less messy,” Trump said when asked about Afghanistan earlier this month.
Trump reached a decision on Afghanistan after lengthy talks on Friday with his top military and national security aides at Camp David, Maryland.
Officials cautioned that Trump could still change his approach before the televised speech, his third prime-time address to the country as president. He will speak from Fort Myer military base in Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington.
Afghan security forces have struggled to prevent advances by Taliban forces. The war confounded the Obama administration, which first committed an increase of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to reverse Taliban gains, then committed to a troop drawdown, which ultimately had to be halted.
U.S. military and intelligence officials are concerned that a Taliban victory over Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government would allow al Qaeda and Islamic State’s regional affiliate to establish bases in Afghanistan from which to plot attacks against the United States and its allies.
“What we need to do is make sure that Afghanistan isn’t a breeding ground for things that can come back and hurt us or our allies,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat and member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, told MSNBC.
One reason the White House decision took so long, two officials who participated in the discussions said on Sunday, is that it was difficult to get Trump to accept the need for a broader regional strategy that included U.S. policy toward Pakistan before making a decision on whether to send additional forces to Afghanistan.
Both officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to disclose Trump’s decisions on troop levels and Pakistan policy before he does.
The difficulty in reaching a decision was compounded, the two officials said, by the wide range of conflicting options Trump received.
White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other advisers favored accepting Nicholson’s request for some 4,000 additional U.S. forces.
But recently ousted White House strategic adviser Steve Bannon had argued for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces, saying that after 16 years, the war was still not winnable, U.S. officials said. Bannon, fired on Friday by Trump, was not at the Camp David meeting.
The officials said that another option examined was to shrink the U.S. force by some 3,000 troops, leaving a smaller counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering contingent to carry out special operations and direct drone strikes against the Taliban.
Proponents argued that it would be less costly in lives and money, and reduce the additional damage to U.S. special operations forces already strained by long-running engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria.