This Is How We Got To Trump's Decision On Afghanistan

The decision to add several thousand more US troops to the fight comes after eight months of deliberation and nearly 16 years of war.

President Donald Trump addressed the nation on Monday night in a speech the administration said would lay out his vision moving forward in Afghanistan — where the US has been at war for nearly 16 years.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The longest war in American history hasn't been at the top of Trump's public agenda, but over the last seven months, his national security team has been working to come to some kind of consensus over what exactly needs to change there. The process has reportedly been an arduous one, with Trump repeatedly delaying any firm choice on a change in strategy even as US forces continue to die while deployed there.

Trump's primetime speech in front of a military crowd in Virginia didn't specifically mention troop numbers — but several outlets said his plan will include an additional 4,000 US members of the military sent to Afghanistan.

Noorullah Shirzada / AFP / Getty Images

Most people pointed out that the speech, which was big on rhetorical platitudes, was very short on actual details.

And that, Trump said, is part of the strategy: "A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend 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 from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will."

This has come critics worried, saying it'll be unclear how to measure the success of the strategy and hold the administration accountable.

Trump added, "We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists."

Trump's plan is the latest in a string of strategies that have guided US forces over the last decade and a half.

Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Following the September 11 terror attacks, the US launched a mission in 2001 to topple the Taliban and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for networks like al-Qaeda to plan attacks against the US. The US was able to remove the Taliban from office, but has since then struggled to contain the resulting insurgency.

Fully eradicating the Taliban was left in limbo when a US-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003. That invasion diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan, leaving some to dub it America's "Forgotten War."

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The US presence in Afghanistan increased again in 2009, when President Barack Obama announced a surge of 21,000 troops to help stabilize the country.


In addition to the troops, the new strategy included treating Afghanistan and Pakistan as two parts of the same problem, a new commitment to training and equipping Afghan security forces, and a mission to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens." The strategy was a contentious one, a middle ground between more hawkish calls for even more forces and a desire to only focus on counterterrorism. In the end, there would be several more troop deployments to Afghanistan over the next year, tripling the US presence on the ground.

At its peak in 2011, the US had more than 100,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. As the Obama administration wound down, so too did the US mission. Sort of.

Matt Cardy / Getty Images

In December 2014, the US combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended. Force levels dropped down to 30,000 amid a "drawdown" meant to hand over control of security to Afghan forces. When Obama left office, there were still about 8,400 US forces left in the country to continue to train and advise the Afghans.

But since then, things have heated up again, as both the Taliban and an offshoot of ISIS have gained strength.

Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images

ISIS Khorosan (ISIS-K) currently controls at least one area in the country's Nagahar province and has claimed credit for numerous attacks across the country, including one in March that targeted a Kabul hospital.

Despite that, not too much has changed in the US's posture toward Afghanistan since Trump took office — except for dropping the largest conventional weapon in history, that is.

Handout / Reuters

This can at least partly be chalked up to the fact that Trump has long been...skeptical of the US's mission in Afghanistan.

Do not allow our very stupid leaders to sign a deal that keeps us in Afghanistan through 2024-with all costs by U.S.A. MAKE AMERICA GREAT!

@realDonaldTrump / Twitter / Via Twitter: @realDonaldTrump

It was to the point that, before announcing his candidacy, Trump offered a rare agreement with Obama on his plan to withdraw from the country.

I agree with Pres. Obama on Afghanistan. We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money -- rebuild the U.S.!

@realDonaldTrump / Twitter / Via Twitter: @realDonaldTrump

The delay was aided by a split between Trump's top aides — or at least between most of the national security team and now-former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Bannon, like Trump prior to his election, believed that efforts should be diverted from Afghanistan and instead focused on US domestic concerns. (A proposal from Bannon to replace US military forces with private security forces reportedly went nowhere.)

National security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis in turn argued in favor of meeting the demands of the generals on the ground. The final decision on the new strategy came on Friday after a day of meetings at Camp David; Bannon, who by the end of the day would be out of his job, did not attend.

The deployment number slightly exceeds a request that Gen. John Nicholson, the current US commander in Afghanistan, made to Congress earlier this year.

Wakil Kohsar / AFP / Getty Images

But Trump was reportedly reluctant to go along with the request and generally unhappy with the options available. According to NBC News, the president went as far as to call for Nicholson to be replaced, though no steps have yet been taken to make that a reality. Mattis meanwhile gave authority in June to add additional troops but opted instead to wait for the review to be completed.

While the number of troops has been determined, what's less clear is what role precisely they and the NATO forces they'll be fighting alongside will be playing.

Jonathan Ernst / AFP / Getty Images

Critics of the ongoing US presence have asked what effect so few troops will have on the general outcome of the war, given that 100,000 were unable to bring about lasting peace.

The strategy is also reported to hinge on whether Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government can reduce corruption and increase its ability to fight against ISIS and the Taliban.

Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

Making matters even more difficult: reports that Russia is arming the Taliban and the general state of play in the country, where the insurgents control a growing amount of territory.

Trump has a known resistance to offering firm withdrawal dates for forces, but previews of the address indicate that there will be no open-ended commitment to keeping troops in Afghanistan.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

That said, it's not clear whether the US war there will be wrapping up in the near future — or stretch into its 20th year.



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