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Trump's new Afghanistan strategy is likely to focus on counter terrorism efforts

  • President Donald Trump's strategy on the Afghanistan war is likely to lead to more U.S. forces going to the warn-torn Asian country — and with the focus on counter terrorism activities.
  • Trump also is expected to emphasize the critical need for providing more training and assistance to Afghan's security forces, particularly given the 16-year conflict no longer is just focused on fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda but on terrorist groups such as ISIS.
  • The president had been criticized by some members of his own party in Congress for not having a strategy earlier on Afghanistan.
  • The Pentagon declined to comment on the president's speech or reports there will be an additional 4,000 U.S. forces going to Afghanistan under the president's new strategy.
U.S. Marine advisors board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after a train, advise and assist mission at the Helmand Provincial Police Headquarters in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, July 9, 2017.
Source: U.S. Marine Corps/ Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff
U.S. Marine advisors board a CH-47 Chinook helicopter after a train, advise and assist mission at the Helmand Provincial Police Headquarters in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, July 9, 2017.

Although President Donald Trump urged a "speedy withdrawal" from Afghanistan back in 2013, he has inherited a conflict that now is going on 16 years and is unlikely to end any time soon.

What's more, Trump's strategy on Afghanistan is likely to lead to more U.S. forces going to the warn-torn country — and with the focus on counter terrorism activities. He also is expected to emphasize the critical need for providing more training and assistance to Afghan's security forces.

Experts expect Trump to talk Monday evening about the need to continue the fight to rid Afghanistan of the threats from the Taliban as well as al-Qaeda and ISIS militants. He also is expected to talk about how the terrorism groups now operating in Afghanistan pose an ongoing threat to the region and the U.S. homeland.

The Pentagon declined to comment on the president's speech or reports there will be an additional 4,000 U.S. forces going to Afghanistan under the president's new strategy. There are currently about 8,400 American forces in Afghanistan, although at the peak during the surge in August 2010 there were about 100,000 service members.

"In a sense, he's owning this, which is what he should be doing and which is very presidential," said James Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington.

Even so, the president has been criticized by some members of his own party in Congress for not having a strategy earlier on Afghanistan.

The setting for Trump's address on his Afghanistan strategy is Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, and it will mark his first major national security address to the nation.

The president and his team have been looking for a strategy to turn things around as the security situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous while becoming increasingly volatile. There's been a lengthy debate within the administration about the strategy to pursue in Afghanistan, with Trump's national security team suggesting sharply different approaches.

Trump held meetings at Camp David on Saturday and later tweeted that he made a decision on Afghanistan.

"At the end of the day, this is a war that we've been fighting for almost 16 years and it seems like nothing has worked for much of those 16 years," said Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "So I think it's good that the president led a very in-depth, comprehensive review."

Then again, Kugelman said the administration can be criticized for "a level of indecision and divisiveness within the White House, which has caused the review to take longer than it otherwise should have. I do think, given how alarming the situation is on the ground now in Afghanistan, we really cannot afford to wait any more."

National security analysts say there have been bombings in major cities by the Taliban and other militant groups but that Afghan security forces have done a reasonable job of holding onto the population centers.

Still, Kugelman said the Taliban today controls "more territory now than it has at any other time in 16 years. That, in and of itself, is highly alarming and an indication that what we've tried in the past simply hasn't worked the way it should."

Some also suggest the U.S. may have rushed things too much in Afghanistan and is paying a price for it now.

"One of the key problems has been we tried to rush the development of the Afghan military forces," said Anthony Cordesman, a national security veteran who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "We've had enough success, so they are still holding population centers. But we really didn't fully finance it until 2011. And we didn't put in the trainers in full numbers until 2012 and we left in 2014."

Many other areas of the country, though, are under the control of the Taliban or power brokers, not the central government. Despite economic aid to the central government, there remains widespread poverty in Afghanistan and corruption is a problem in the government.

The situation in Afghanistan is further complicated because al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Taliban's Haqqani terror network have all received support from Pakistan's security forces and its spy agency known as ISI.

Some believe the time is overdue for Washington to declare Pakistan as a terrorist state and maybe consider sanctions targeting those individuals or entities in the Islamic country linked to assisting the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other groups fighting against the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. There are also reports suggesting Pakistan's intelligence services may be helping to finance ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Afghanistan.

The thinking goes that if you apply pressure on Pakistani elements supporting Sunni extremist groups, such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, then it could turn things around in Afghanistan by choking off money and the route from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Money flows to the terror groups through the illicit drug trade, which travels along these same routes.

"You have the option of leverage," said CSIS's Cordesman, who has served as a consultant to the Pentagon and Department of State during the Afghan and Iraq wars. "Question is whether you will use it. Because if you end up alienating Pakistan, the other risk is you drive them into the hands of China."

An F-16C Fighting Falcon takes off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan for a mission, Aug. 22, 2016.
Photo: Capt. Korey Fratini | U.S. Air Force
An F-16C Fighting Falcon takes off from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan for a mission, Aug. 22, 2016.

Earlier this month, NBC News reported a frustrated president said the U.S. is "losing" in Afghanistan and suggested replacing Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander of coalition forces in the South Asian country. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), a critic of Trump's previous lack of a policy on Afghanistan, came out in support of Nicholson.

Heritage's Carafano, who advised the Trump transition team on foreign policy and national security, said part of the reason the Afghanistan policy decision may have dragged out longer than expected is because it's "something where you're making an upfront commitment, like for four to eight years. So I think it's a big deal for the president."

That said, Trump is not expected to set any timetables in his address tonight. President Barack Obama was roundly criticized by some conservatives for setting up timetables on Afghanistan.

The U.S. has spent well over $800 billion fighting the conflict, and there have been more than 2,400 U.S. military fatalities and tens of thousands of soldiers wounded.

The Pentagon is generally expected to soon announce another 3,800 U.S. forces, possibly for training and assisting missions in Afghanistan. In July, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the president had delegated "tactical" decisions on Afghanistan but not the strategy decisions.

"It's unclear how the supposed 3,800 are going to be used," said Cordesman. "They will strengthen the counter terrorism force, presumably most will be train and assist."

According to Cordesman, there's a need to increase air support as part of the counter terrorism effort too. "If we sharply increase the number of air sorties, that could do a lot to sustain things on the military side. And it would over time build up an effective Afghan force. So it could accomplish a great deal."

On the other hand, Wilson Center's Kugelman believes "a modest" increase in forces that is being talked about "will not be sufficient to win the war."

Still, Kugelman said there remain benefits to adding another 3,000 to 4,000 U.S. forces since "it would be able to better plug the gaps in capacity that we see from Afghan security force."

Kugelman also said it would help the Afghan security forces deal with weaknesses in intelligence collection and problems with air support and air cover.

"If you have more folks on the ground, you'd be in a better position to deal with those areas," he said.