Donald Trump sought to strengthen his flagging presidency in a prime time address Monday night by defining his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan and acknowledging that he was uncharacteristically departing from his instincts.
In the lengthy speech, the president clubbed his predecessor for a strategy in the Middle East that he has long criticized, and he firmly denounced American-led nation-building overseas. He doubled down on his pronouncement that he would not set timelines or announce plans in advance.
But rather than unravel the costly 17-year U.S. involvement in ravaged Afghanistan like he promised his supporters he would do as a candidate for office, Trump conceded that such a move would be dangerous.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and, historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life, I have heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” he said. Trump went on to try to knock down the perception that he is not well-studied or serious, and said he arrived at the decision to accelerate and intensify the American effort against enemy forces in Afghanistan after numerous meetings over a number of months.
After blaming former President Barack Obama for a hasty withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Trump complained that the vacuum created paved the way for ISIS to claim territory and innocent lives there, and concluded that the same fate should not befall the even more complex terrain in Afghanistan.
“A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions,” Trump said, warning that he will not provide any more detail about plans of attack or numbers of troops that will factor into the war.
The president previously approved a plan that would give the Pentagon increased control over its deployments and the ability to send up to 4,000 more American troops. In Monday’s address, he said that micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles overseas, which may be a line of thinking drawn from the heavy influence of generals stationed in his Cabinet.
In a statement following the address, Defense Secretary James Mattis said: “I have directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy. I will be in consultation with the Secretary General of NATO and our allies — several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers.”
Politically, Trump alluded to a future for Afghanistan that could include both the current Afghan government and the Taliban, which puzzled some of his critics. He explained: “We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement: “We are making clear to the Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield. The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war.”
Meanwhile, Trump applied increasing pressure to Pakistan for being a safe haven for terrorists while serving as a U.S. ally, and he called on India to step up its efforts in Afghanistan.
Without addressing the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, specifically, Trump opened his remarks by encouraging Americans of all stripes to heal divisive wounds in the spirit of creating a more-welcoming country for service members upon their return from battle.