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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Bush, Obama and now Trump: a history of US presidential announcements on the Afghan war

Defence secretary Jim Mattis confirmed on Sunday that a new Afghanistan war strategy was formulated

US president Donald Trump steps from Air Force One to meet with the National Security Council at Camp David to try to agree on a strategy for Afghanistan. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
US president Donald Trump steps from Air Force One to meet with the National Security Council at Camp David to try to agree on a strategy for Afghanistan. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

US president Donald Trump is scheduled to address the path forward on Afghanistan on Monday in a highly anticipated speech on the 16-year conflict that has stymied two previous administrations.

Defence secretary Jim Mattis confirmed on Sunday that a new Afghanistan war strategy was formulated but refused to provide further details. However, he said that he was “comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous”.

Currently, the US has around 8,400 troops in the country.

The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after the September 11 attacks, overthrowing the Taliban government. US troops have been present in the country since then and during the presidencies of George W Bush, Barack Obama and now Mr Trump.

The war in Afghanistan has been the longest foreign military conflict in American history with two presidents before Mr Trump unable to achieve a decisive win.

While the Bush administration ousted the Taliban government for harbouring Osama bin Laden, who was behind the 9/11 attacks, it was under the Obama administration that the Al Qaeda leader was found and killed in Pakistan in May 2011.

However, the war stymied the Obama administration, which committed to an increase of tens of thousands of US troops to reverse Taliban gains, then committed to a troop drawdown, which ultimately had to be halted.

In July 2016, the Obama administration announced that 8,400 troops will remain in Afghanistan rather than cutting back to 5,500 as originally planned.

When asked about Afghanistan earlier this month, Mr Trump said: “I took over a mess, and we’re going to make it a lot less messy.”

Mr Trump has long been sceptical of the US approach in the region and announced a strategic review soon after taking office in January. According to US officials, the president had privately questioned whether it would be wise to send more troops to Afghanistan.

“We’re not winning,” he told advisers in a mid-July meeting, questioning whether Gen John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, should be fired, an official said.

Trump, who on Sunday ended a two-week working vacation at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, reached his decision on Afghanistan after lengthy talks with his top military and national security aides at Camp David, Maryland, on Friday.

A senior administration official said the likeliest outcome was that Mr Trump would agree to a modest increase in US troops.

Mr Mattis has argued that a US military presence is needed to protect against the ongoing threat from Islamist militants. Afghan security forces have struggled to prevent advances by Taliban insurgents.

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Earlier this year, Mr Trump gave Mr Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, opening the door for future troop increases requested by Gen Nicholson. The general said in February he needed "a few thousand" additional forces, some potentially drawn from US allies.

US military and intelligence officials are concerned that a Taliban victory would allow Al Qaeda and ISIL’s regional affiliate to establish bases in Afghanistan from which to plot attacks against the US and its allies.

One reason the White House decision has taken so long, two officials who participated in the discussions said on Sunday, is that it was difficult to get Mr Trump to accept the need for a broader regional strategy that included US policy towards Pakistan before making a decision on whether to send additional forces to Afghanistan.

Both officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, declined to disclose Mr Trump's decisions on troop levels and Pakistan policy before he does.

The officials said that another option examined was shrinking the US force by some 3,000 troops and leaving a smaller counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering contingent to carry out special operations and direct drone strikes against the Taliban.

Proponents argued that option was less costly in lives and money and would add less to the damage already inflicted on US special operations forces by the long-running battles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria.

* Additional reporting by Reuters

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