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Trump, who once backed withdrawal from Afghanistan, tries to sell nation on deeper involvement

By Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman • Updated Aug 21, 2017 at 11:20 PM

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, admitting he came into office wanting to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, said Monday he had changed his mind and had approved an open-ended military commitment to prevent terrorist safe havens there.

In a televised prime-time speech Monday night before an audience of troops at Fort Myer, across the Potomac River from Washington in Virginia, the president told the nation that the “immense” security threats from South Asia dictated that the United States remain involved after nearly 17 years in Afghanistan.

Trump, reading from a teleprompter in sober tones, did not provide details for increased involvement there, saying he would publicize neither troop levels nor timetables for deployment. But his military advisers are seeking 4,000 more troops, a 50 percent increase, and stepped-up counterterrorism operations.

“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump said, adding, “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists — including ISIS and al-Qaida — would instantly fill, just as happened before Sept. 11.”

In implicit criticism of his two predecessors, the president said, “We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq,” by leaving too soon.

Committing thousands more troops to the nation’s longest war presents a new political challenge for the president at a time when his public approval — and credibility — has been damaged by a succession of missteps and misstatements in his young administration. Americans by and large are divided over the war and its effectiveness.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) issued the following statement on Trump’s address: “Our military men and women, and their families, have given so much already. Tonight, President Trump is asking even more of them without a plan to transfer power to the Afghan government or a plan to leave the country.

“A commitment to ‘win’ is not a clear strategy, and our troops on the ground in Afghanistan deserve more,” Brown continued. “Let me be clear – we cannot commit more troops and taxpayer dollars to this war until we have a clear exit strategy. This is a reversal from the President’s years of criticizing this war – both as a private citizen and a candidate. Tonight’s address left us with nothing more than unanswered questions.”

With his decision, Trump is in the awkward position of taking ownership of a conflict he has long criticized. Like presidents before him, he has shifted from a candidate emphasizing domestic issues and rebuilding at home to confront the tough realities of war and peace through the lens of a commander in chief in close counsel with military officials.

“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, in a rare acknowledgment of the unique pressures and vantage of his office.

In his case, the move signals the influence not just of Pentagon commanders, led by retired Marine general and now Defense Secretary James N. Mattis, but of the current and retired generals whom Trump has brought into the White House — in particular H.R. McMaster as national security adviser and John F. Kelly as chief of staff. And it reflects the waning influence of the nationalist faction that had been led by White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who was ousted Friday but had advocated a retreat from long-standing alliances and expensive commitments overseas.

Calls for more troops and money will almost certainly run into resistance from an unusual but consistently strong coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans who reject a muscular military presence overseas.

On Monday, hours before Trump’s address, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky was among deficit hawks reminding the president of the opposition he would face from the Republican far right.

Massie wrote on Twitter: “In addition to $ trillion+ war, we’ve spent $113 billion rebuilding Afghan … that’s 2x our own $50 billion annual federal highway spending!”

Lawmakers may have difficulty approving more funding for the new strategy if the administration sends a supplemental spending request to Capitol Hill this fall. Senators, in particular, have made it clear they will require a more fully developed strategy before committing to more troops; the question now is whether Trump’s remarks meet that test.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently outlined his own plan out of frustration with Trump’s delays, and senators were preparing to debate it when they return from their August recess next month.

Congress is also under pressure to revisit its nearly 16-year-old authorization for the war, approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Backers of a new authorization, which might put limits on the president’s discretion, have increasing momentum amid concerns about broader military entanglements abroad — concerns that candidate Trump had stoked. Trump’s move almost certainly will spur their effort.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia on Monday said that both the Obama and Trump administrations had failed to outline a clear strategy for the region.

Kaine, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Monday, cited an early failure “by everybody to say, ‘OK, what’s the continuing rationale for being here?’ ” He added, “What we need to do is make sure Afghanistan isn’t a breeding ground for things that can come back and hurt us.”

After lawmakers hear Trump’s plans, “we’re going to be kicking the tires about it when we come back in September,” Kaine said.

Trump made his decision over the weekend after a meeting with his military advisers on Friday at Camp David.

He was presented with three options, according to a former national security official familiar with the internal administration deliberations: scale back to a skeletal presence; deploy only a robust counterterrorism operation headed by Joint Special Operations Command and the Central Intelligence Agency; or increase troop levels by 4,000 to 5,000 while at the same time increasing counterterrorism operations.

Trump seems to have chosen the third option. Bannon was said to have favored a fourth idea, using private contractors to fight alongside Afghan troops.

The troop increase in Afghanistan is supposed to create more time for training Afghan forces and bolstering Afghan government institutions. Yet the administration is ill-equipped for the enhanced mission: The State Department has not filled key senior positions that would be in charge of handling the Afghanistan and Pakistan portfolios. Trump still has no U.S. ambassador in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

“No amount of denial, exaggeration and obfuscation by State and USAID can substitute for a concerted effort to deal with the civil side of the war,” Anthony Cordesman, a former civilian adviser on past Afghanistan strategy reviews, said in a new report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Put bluntly, half a strategy is not better than none.”

Trump’s plan to boost troop levels by 50 percent after the drawdown of the Obama years was recommended by his military advisers, including Mattis and the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Army four-star Gen. John W. Nicholson.

Currently, there are about 8,400 U.S. and 5,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in the country, advising Afghan security forces. Some NATO allies have also pledged to send more troops. The American troop levels are down from a peak of more than 100,000 during President Obama’s first term.

As much as he would like to signify a break with his predecessors, Trump, in effect, is following strategies similar to those of Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, to work more closely with Afghan security forces and target Taliban leaders moving over the mountainous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Militants serving the Taliban, Islamic State and other militias have wrought more violence and instability in Afghanistan over the last year, increasing pressure on Western forces brought in to bolster overmatched Afghan security forces.

That steady loss of control by the Afghanistan government has forced Trump to revisit his previous promises to cut back on U.S. involvement and look for ways to find a solution to the conflict that has eluded two previous presidencies.

Trump’s public salesmanship in the life-and-death matter could be undercut by reminders of his own past views on Afghanistan.

“We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!” Trump tweeted in 2013, in one of several similar statements he made that year.

The U.S. has spent more than $840 billion on the conflict in Afghanistan since 2001, according to the analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Other estimates put the cost of the conflict in Afghanistan at more than $1 trillion.

Although Trump vocally criticized Obama’s plans for Afghanistan in 2013, during his 2016 presidential campaign he largely avoided the subject, speaking more often about the need to win wars, while disdaining efforts at nation-building abroad.

Meanwhile, many Americans share the skepticism that Trump previously expressed about Afghanistan. In a December 2014 poll by ABC and The Washington Post, for example, respondents by 56 percent to 38 percent said that “considering all the costs to the United States versus the benefits,” the war had “not been worth fighting.”

Within his own party, however, Trump’s previous skepticism was not so widely shared. Liberals and Democrats were the most likely to doubt the usefulness of American involvement in the war. Among Republicans, opinion was the mirror image of the national view — 56 percent said the war had been worth fighting and 38 percent said it had not been.

Despite the skepticism, however, a majority of those surveyed at that time supported keeping 10,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan to train and assist that country’s security forces. That figure is not far from the approximately 12,400 U.S. troops that will be in the country under Trump’s proposal.

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(Staff writers David Lauter, Lisa Mascaro and Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.)

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