WASHINGTON/KABUL: President Donald Trump committed US troops to an open-ended war in Afghanistan, a decision the Afghan government welcomed on Tuesday but which Taliban insurgents warned would make the country a “graveyard for the American empire”. Trump offered few specifics in a speech on Monday but promised a stepped-up military campaign against the Taliban who have gained ground against US-backed Afghan government forces. He also singled out Pakistan for harbouring militants in safe havens on its soil, an accusation it denies.
While Trump said he would not discuss troop levels or details of the new strategy, US officials said on Monday he had signed off on Defence Secretary James Mattis’ plans to send about 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Trump said “my original instinct was to pull out” all American troops but he was convinced by his military advisers after a lengthy review of the United States’ longest war.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” he said. “A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill.”
While Trump said “our troops will fight to win”, he also stressed that ultimately Afghanistan’s police and army must to most of the fighting to defeat the Taliban and allied militants.
“The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do. … We want them to succeed.”
Most of the approximately 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan work with a Nato-led training and advising mission, with the rest part of a counter-terrorism force that mostly targets pockets of Al Qaeda and IS fighters.
NO TIMELINES: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed the strategy saying it would expand the training mission for Afghan forces, which includes building its fledgling air force and doubling the size of the Afghan special forces.
“I am grateful to President Trump and the American people for this affirmation of support … for our joint struggle to rid the region from the threat of terrorism,” Ghani said in a statement.
The Taliban swiftly condemned Trump’s decision.
“If the US does not pull all its forces out of Afghanistan, we will make this country the 21st century graveyard for the American empire,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
US-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban’s hard-line government in late 2001 over its sheltering of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11, 2001, attacks in US cities that killed nearly 2,000 people.
But US forces have been bogged down ever since in a war that has vexed three presidents. About 2,400 US troops have died in Afghanistan.
Trump, who had criticised his predecessor for setting deadlines for drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, declined to put a timeline on expanded US operations in Afghanistan.
Former President Barack Obama’s deadlines for troop decreases brought the US military footprint from about 100,000 in 2011 to 8,400.
“Our future presence will be based on conditions and not arbitrary timelines,” the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, said in a statement.
‘NO BLANK CHECK’: Trump warned on Monday that US support “is not a blank check” for Afghanistan’s often-divided and corruption-plagued government and insisted he would not engage in “nation-building,” a practice he has accused his predecessors of doing at huge cost.
Trump insisted in his speech that the Afghan government, Pakistan, India, and Nato allies step up their own commitment to resolving the 16-year conflict.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens,” he said, referring to complaints that Taliban and other militants move freely in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but on Monday Pakistani army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said: “There are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan”.
US Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News the rules of engagement were being changed “so that American commanders on the ground can make real-time decisions” and the United States would continue to target militants’ safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much more to lose by supporting terrorists. The president has put them on notice,” Pence said in an editorial in USA Today. — Reuters