ARLINGTON, Va. (CN) – President Donald Trump on Monday night said it would be “counterproductive” to announce how many more troops he will send to Afghanistan, how U.S. strategy might change, when the war might end, and even what victory might look like, but said there will be no “hasty withdrawal” of U.S. forces.
“How counterproductive is it for the U.S. to announce and advance the dates it intends to begin or end military options? We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables will guide our strategy,” Trump said in what was billed as a major speech on America’s longest war.
Before the speech, speaking not for attribution, senior officials said the administration is expected to deploy around 4,000 more troops to the 8,500 already in Afghanistan.
Despite Trump’s years of withering criticism about his predecessors’ conduct of the war that has claimed more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers’ lives, and wounded more than 20,000, the president offered no details about how his plans for the war may differ from those of Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
He did say, however, that the United States would not be engaged in “nation building,” but in “killing terrorists.”
He did not estimate when the war might end, or how it might proceed.
“America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out,” Trump said. “I won’t say when we’re going to attack, but attack we will.”
As early as 2012, Trump derided the drawn-out conflict in Afghanistan. In a comment that year on Twitter he asked: “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste of time. Time to come home!”
He repeated the sentiment a year later: “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!” he tweeted.
In his Monday night speech at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, Trump said he had been “given a bad and complex hand” when he took office, but that he “fully knew” what he was getting into.
Though he may have fully known what he was getting into, the president reportedly still needed a bit of visceral coaxing from national security advisor H.R. McMaster.
The Washington Post first reported on Tuesday that long before Trump’s half-hour speech on Monday, McMaster shared photographs from 1972 of striking young Afghan women in miniskirts. McMaster shared the images with the president in hopes that it would remind him of the Western culture which once pervaded the region and offer reassurance that this influence could return again.
“These are big and intricate problems. One way or another, these problems will be solved. In the end, we will win,” he said.
Though he said he would seek greater cooperation from Pakistan, where Taliban and other U.S. enemies have sought sanctuary for years, the president’s speech focused almost entirely on military matters.
Corruption is rampant in Afghanistan, where the Taliban, factions of al Qaeda, ISIS and a host of warlords fight not just for territory but for pieces of the country’s multibillion-dollar opium and heroin business, the nation’s most valuable crop.
Trump has not yet sent a U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
“I share the American people’s frustrations,” the president said. “I share their frustration over a foreign policy that spends too much time, energy and money, and most importantly, lives, trying to rebuild countries in our image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.”
Trump all but acknowledged in the speech that his instinct upon taking office was to get the United States out of the war as soon as possible, as he’d said whenever the subject came up on the campaign trail. But Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser McMaster H.R. McMaster apparently persuaded him otherwise.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” Trump said Monday night. “But all my life, I’ve heard decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”
His reassessment culminated last week during a meeting with defense officials at Camp David, though how the strategy differs from those of the past remains unclear. Trump said he would “expand authority to U.S. armed forces to target the networks that sow violence and chaos through Afghanistan.”
“They need to know they have nowhere to hide, no place beyond reach of American might and American arms,” he said.
Trump did not address what changes, if any, he might make to former President Obama’s use of military drones for targeted assassinations. Trump has said he would leave operational details, including troop levels, to the generals, and said that giving more operational freedom to field commanders would produce “dramatic results.”
“Micromanagement from D.C. does not win battles,” he said. “They’re won in the field, drawing upon the expertise of war time commanders and front line soldiers acting in real time with real authority and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”
He called the quest for peace a shared responsibility between the U.S. military, Afghan forces and other allies and partners. Experts on the region, though, commented that an effort to work more closely with Pakistan, if it happens, might strain U.S. relations with its traditional enemy India. Both countries have nuclear weapons.
The president addressed Pakistan directly: “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan [being] a safe haven for terrorist organizations,” he said. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars and at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. That will have to change and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorist who target U.S. service members and officials. It’s time for Pakistan to demonstrate commitment to civilization, order and peace.”
India, which makes “billions in trade” with the United States will need to share the burden, Trump said, with “economic assistance and development” to Afghanistan.
However, the president said, “In this struggle, the heaviest burden will continue to be borne by the good people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces. The prime minister has promised to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us.”
Somewhat cryptically, in a speech about a U.S. troop buildup, Trump added: “Afghans will secure and build their own nation. We want them to succeed. But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands. … Those days are over now. Instead, we’ll work with allies and partners to protect our shared interest. We are not asking others to pursue our way of life.”