WASHINGTON — President Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan reflects the lack of viable options for winning a war that has dragged on for nearly 16 years with no end in sight.
“We don’t have any good options and we can’t predict the outcome of putting any of them into practice,” said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Trump's approach, unveiled Monday night in a speech to Army troops at nearby Fort Myer, Va., could clear the way for the Pentagon to send several thousand more non-combat U.S. advisers to Afghanistan. Their orders: Boost support for the country’s military, which is struggling to contain the Taliban and other militant groups that have gained ground.
Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authority to determine exactly how many more troops to deploy, a reflection of the president’s policy of delegating more authority to uniformed leaders.
Trump also wants to place more pressure on regional allies, such as Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, to help resolve the war through negotiations. The Taliban has received sanctuary and support from Pakistan and its powerful intelligence agency.
There are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 100,000 in 2010 and 2011. The top coalition commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said several thousand more are needed to turn the tide in a war the Pentagon has described as stalemated.
Adding forces “will be helpful but it may not be decisive,” said retired Army four-star general Jack Keane. “I’m not sure we’re willing to make the commitment to turn this thing around.”
The Taliban has gained territory as Afghan's fledgling security forces have taken high casualties to combat the growing insurgency. The Islamic State is also emerging as a threat in the country.
Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Trump’s strategy will likely include a “carrot and stick” approach designed to enlist Pakistan's help.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Pakistan’s prime minister, India’s foreign minister and Afghanistan’s foreign minister in advance of Trump’s speech, the State Department said.
Trump’s policy is not a major shift from that of the Obama administration, which ended a direct U.S. combat mission but avoided a total military withdrawal.
President Barack Obama had drawn up a plan to withdraw nearly all U.S. forces before the end of his second term, but he later delayed the drawdown in the face of growing Taliban strength.
Obama's original withdrawal schedule gave hope to the Taliban and made allies in the region fearful. The Trump administration will likely make decisions on troop levels based on security needs and not a set timetable, analysts said.
“I find it hard to believe that this will be decisive,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp. “What it may do at least is send a message to the Taliban and people in the region that the United States is not going to withdraw.”
Contributing: Oren Dorell