After weeks of deliberations, US President Donald Trump is ready to unveil his administration’s Afghanistan policy, which could include sending additional troops and increasing pressure on Pakistan to deny sanctuary to terrorist outfits such as the Haqqani Network operating from its soil.
The White House has said in a statement Trump will announce an “an update on the path forward for America’s engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia” in a televised speech to the nation, which will be only his second since he addressed a joint sitting of congress in February.
The policy will have implications for India, which has committed substantial amounts of development aid to Afghanistan, neighbours Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia, as well as US allies that have contributed to the Nato-led international security assistance force.
Pakistan will likely be impacted directly, as defence secretary James Mattis indicated to reporters en route to Amman, Jordan on Sunday. Asked about Pakistan providing safe haven to terrorists and if that will be part of the new policy and how the administration plans to tackle it, Mattis said: “It is a South Asia strategy. It is not just an Afghanistan strategy. So if you look at the region, it’s a South Asia strategy, and we’ll be addressing those issues in it.”
He gave no details, but the administration could tie military aid and payments to certifiable action by Pakistan against terrorists, for which there exists a broad bipartisan consensus. One of the leading advocates of a tougher line on Pakistan, Lisa Curtis — Trump’s deputy assistant — was present at the president’s final review of the policy on Friday.
Trump had been a long-time sceptic of the Afghanistan war, which is in its 16th year and is the longest war fought by the US, and seemed delaying the inevitable — owning the war, deciding the future course of action, whether to pull out altogether, stay and let the status quo continue or order a surge.
“Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented Generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan,” Trump tweeted on Saturday, the day after the review meeting.
He did not elaborate and the White House did not follow-up with statements. But there are expectations, according to local media reports, that more troops could be on the list of outcomes of the policy review triggered by Trump, authorising Mattis to determine the troop level weeks ago.
A decision was taken in June to send up to 4,000 additional troops — to roll back a resurgent Taliban, and tackle the Islamic State in Khorasan — but an announcement said to be likely in days was delayed as Mattis pushed back and insisted on a strategy to back it up with.
“I was not willing to make significant troop lifts until we made certain we knew what was the strategy, what was the commitment going in,” Mattis told reporters on Sunday, and added he was satisfied Trump’s decision followed a “sufficiently rigorous” process.
The US had up to 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 post a post a surge ordered by former President Barack Obama, but it is now down to only 8,400, engaged only in training and assisting Afghan forces and combating terrorists.