American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically, President Donald Trump vowed tonight in his first major policy address to the nation since his address to the joint session of Congress in February.
Trump said his strategy to move the country forward in its longest war marks a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. He blasted as “counterproductive” previous administrations’ love of announcing in advance the dates it intended to begin, and/or end, military operations.
“We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities,” Trump added, punching holes in headlines that had been written all day speculating how many additional troops he would commit to the region, based on reporters’ conversations with “informed sources.” Most had put their money on 4,000.
Speaking from Fort Myer in Arlington, VA, Trump promised to “ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work” in hopes of bringing a “win” to a conflict that already has claimed the lives of about 2,000 Americans. Trump said he already had “lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.
“Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles,” Trump scoffed. “They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and front-line soldiers acting in real time – with real authority – and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”
He promised to expand authority for American armed forces “to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide – that no place is beyond the reach of American arms.”
Trump also signaled what he called “a change in 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,” he said. “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.”
We are not nation-building again; we are killing terrorists, Trump vowed.
“Our troops will fight to win,” he said. “From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge.”
The president insisted American military no longer will be used to try to construct democracies in far-away lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. “Those days are now over,” Trump argued. “Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests. 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.”
Washington wags say it’s no coincidence that Trump’s announcement comes days after he gave the hook to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, who vehemently opposed increasing U.S. presence in Afghanistan and had been pushing the idea of outsourcing some operations to contractors.
The strategy he outlined was a marked departure from when he was a reality TV star who steadfastly opposed American involvement in Afghanistan; for reasons we cannot explain, Trump got asked about such matters while starring in Celebrity Apprentice. He continued with that position as a candidate for the White House. Tonight, he acknowledged how different the situation looked when viewed from the Oval Office.
Political pundits took to TV news outlets this morning to say the speech was Trump’s chance to sound more presidential/less anger-management-challenged reality TV star than he has in the past couple weeks in person and the last couple hours on Twitter.
It’s Trump’s first big made-for-TV moment since his Trump Tower press conference at which he pointedly said “both sides” had been responsible for the violence at the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville that left one woman dead and many others injured. Those remarks were considered the newest low-bar in POTUS Trump behavior over his seven months in office.
Trump had begun his address with an elliptical reference to the fatal violence in Charlottesville, during which, he had insisted, some “very fine people” had joined the Tiki-torch-bearing neo-Nazis who had shouted “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.”
Among his remarks this evening, Trump said – sounding vaguely like a criminal whistling by the accident scene – that a “wound inflicted upon a single member of our community, is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.”
He added: “There can be no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate [in the U.S.]. … “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.”
Hopefully, he was listening.