President Donald Trump announced an unspecified surge of troops in Afghanistan to “kill terrorists” and “defeat the enemy” during a prime-time address Monday night to soldiers at Fort Myer, Virginia, at the same time rejecting nation building and promising “principled realism.”
The president also touted a regional strategy, warning that he expects more responsibility from Pakistan and reaching out for more help from India to crush the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and 17 other organizations in the region that the U.S. regards as terrorists.
“Terrorists, take heed: America will never let up until you are dealt a lasting defeat,” Trump said, speaking nearly 16 years after President George W. Bush led the nation to war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks.
“We will not talk about numbers of troops, or our plans for further military activities,” Trump said at another point, in a clear rebuke to his immediate predecessor, President Barack Obama.
Most reports ahead of the 25-minute speech said the president planned to send another 4,000 troops to bolster the 8,400 already in Afghanistan.
But he pointedly declined to specify a number. The primary goal of the stronger commitment, he said, will be to train and advise Afghan forces as a more formidable military.
While departing from a core plank of his campaign, Trump sounded like a candidate when he said, “I’m a problem solver. In the end, we will win.”
Initial response from conservative lawmakers and policy analysts was positive.
James Carafano, a national security expert at The Heritage Foundation, voiced support for the new policy.
“An Afghanistan that is free, stable, and governable is in America’s best interest,” Carafano said in a prepared statement, adding: “Achieving that end can only be achieved with results on the ground—not by a calendar set by political expediency, and it can only be achieved by resetting America’s strategy in South Asia. The president was right to make a commitment to the American people to do the job right, and should remain committed to enhancing security in the region in the coming years.”
Six key takeaways from the president’s remarks:
1. A Change of Mind
Trump noted his position as a candidate for president, when he was opposed to escalating the conflict in Afghanistan.
Americans, he said, are “weary of war without victory.”
“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,” the president said.
“So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David, with my Cabinet and generals, to complete our strategy.”
2. Three Conclusions
“I arrived at three fundamental conclusions about America’s core interests in Afghanistan,” the president said of the results of his meetings with military leaders and his national security team.
“First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made.”
He referred to the final departure of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, which he said led to the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, as well as the fact that Afghanistan was a safe haven for terrorists before 9/11.
“Second, 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-Qaeda—would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11.”
“Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan—the highest concentration in any region of the world.”
3. No Telegraphed Exit Plan
Trump repeated what he said many times as a candidate.
“A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions,” he said. “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 operations.”
“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” he added. “I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.”
The president said he would not micromanage his commanders but instead free them of burdensome rules of engagement.
“Our troops will fight to win,” he said.
But, he said, the Afghan government must do its part by making the “real reforms, progress, and results” necessary to bring “lasting peace.” America’s patience, the president said, is limited.
4. Putting Pakistan on Notice
Pakistan gives safe haven to terrorists, the president said.
“In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the re-emergence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America; and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us.”
The president said the administration will change its approach to Pakistan.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
He also called for more help from India in the form of economic development and assistance.
“India makes billions of dollars from trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan,” Trump said.
5. No Nation Building
Trump stuck with his rejection of nation building.
“We are not nation building again,” the president said. “We are killing terrorists”
“We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image,” he said.
“We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward.”
6. Unity at Home
Although the president didn’t directly talk about the Aug. 12 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the political storm over his piecemeal reaction, he clearly referred to it when he said the military’s sense of unity should serve as an example of unity for the rest of the country.
“When one part of America hurts, we all hurt and when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together,” Trump said at the beginning of his speech.
“Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people. … We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”
Trump returned to this theme at the end of his remarks, noting the sacrifices of those at rest in nearby Arlington National Cemetery and the need to honor them as a nation.
“In every generation, we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed,” he said, “because we know who we are and what we are fighting for.”
“We must unite to defend America from its enemies abroad,” the president said.
“We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts, courage in our souls, and everlasting pride in every one of you.”
Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.