WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump in a primetime address Monday reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to fighting the war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year, saying a “hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum” that the Islamic State and al-Qaida are all too eager to fill.
Trump acknowledged that he had formerly fiercely advocated for an immediate withdrawal from the conflict, but said he has changed his position since learning more as president.
His approach in Afghanistan would target terrorism, not seek to spread democracy, he said, criticizing how former President Barack Obama handled ending the war in Iraq because terrorism took hold afterward.
“We are not nation-building again, we are killing terrorists,” Trump said from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, where soldiers in Army fatigues were gathered.
The 26-minute remarks served as his first formal address to the American public since his well-received speech before a joint session of Congress in early February.
The United States has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 following the 9/11 terror attacks. The Pentagon said 2,350 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Trump refused to set deadlines for withdrawal as Obama did in his 2011 announcement about drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions,” Trump said.
He would not speak in detail about any surge in U.S. forces or resources to the region, though several news outlets reported that the administration intends to add 4,000 troops to the 8,400 already deployed in Afghanistan.
“America’s enemies must never know our plans,” the president said.
Trump spoke forcefully about eliminating terrorists as the guiding principle of his Afghanistan strategy, calling them “thugs and criminals and predators and, that’s right, losers.”
He said: “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”
Citing what he called “principled realism,” he said the days of trying “to rebuild other countries in our own image” are long gone.
In a pointed message to the Afghan leadership to begin preparing to govern without a U.S. presence, Trump warned: “Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.”
He added that Pakistan must do its part by not harboring terror groups and India must contribute economically.
Trump referenced sentiments he had expressed frequently and fervently as a private citizen.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re president of the United States,” he said.
In 2012, he tweeted, “Why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!”
A year later, he posted, “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!”
Then, as a presidential candidate, he began to acknowledge the complexity of the situation.
Trump on Monday night made a reference in the racial tensions that have further gripped the nation after the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, clashes. U.S. military members “deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed that setting “arbitrary” troop drawdown deadlines would embolden the Taliban and other terror groups.
He said of U.S. military members and their sacrifices: “Asking them to do more should never be something that our commander-in-chief or Congress does unless our national security interests are threatened and unless we are prepared to provide them with the authorities and forces needed to accomplish their mission.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, applauded the lack of a withdrawal deadline as well as the regional approach.
He added, “The president must conduct himself as a wartime commander-in-chief. He must speak regularly to the American people, and to those waging this war on their behalf, about why we are fighting, why the additional sacrifices are worth it, and how we will succeed.”
Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher with RAND Corporation, said there wasn’t a lot of new strategy introduced by Trump.
“The premise of our involvement in Afghanistan remains the same: military force to create space for a political solution,” she told Newsday. “Unfortunately, we didn’t hear any detail on those three elements: what force looks like, what space looks like and what a political solution would look like.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she planned to call for Senate hearings to demand accountability from the Trump administration on the war.
“I found the President’s speech tonight terribly lacking. Lacking in details, lacking in substance and lacking in a vision of what success in Afghanistan looks like,” she said in a statement. “When committing American service members overseas, the Commander in Chief needs to clearly define the mission and a strategy to achieve success.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after the speech in part: “We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions.”