Reversing course from his campaign pledges, President Donald Trump on Monday night committed the United States to an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan, signaling he would dispatch more troops to America's longest war and vowing "a fight to win."
In a speech offering few specifics, Trump promised a stepped-up military campaign against Taliban insurgents who have gained ground against the US-backed Afghan government and he singled out Pakistan for harboring militants.
"We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists," he said in a prime-time televised address at a military base outside Washington.
Trump ran for the US presidency calling for a swift US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and he acknowledged on Monday that he was going against his instincts in approving the new campaign plan sought by his military advisers.
"The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable," he said. "A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill."
The Republican president, who has criticised his predecessors for setting deadlines for drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, declined to put a time line on expanded US military operations in Afghanistan.
Trump now inherits the same challenges as predecessors George W. Bush and Barack Obama, including a stubborn Taliban insurgency and a weak, divided government in Kabul. He is laying the groundwork for greater US involvement without a clear end in sight or providing specific benchmarks for success.
US officials said he had signed off on Defense Secretary James Mattis' plans to send about 4,000 more troops to add to the roughly 8,400 now deployed in Afghanistan.
Mattis said he had directed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to carry out the strategy and that he would be consulting with NATO and US allies, several of which had also committed to increasing troops.
'NOT A BLANK CHECK'
Trump warned that US support "is not a blank check," and insisted he would not engage in "nation-building," a practice he has accused his predecessors of doing at huge cost.
Through the speech, Trump insisted that others - the Afghan government, Pakistan, India and NATO allies - step up their own commitment to resolving the 16-year conflict.
Trump saved his sharpest words for Pakistan.
"We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens," Trump said. "Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists."
Senior US officials warned he could reduce security assistance for Pakistan unless the nuclear-armed nation cooperates more in preventing militants from using safe havens on its soil.
A Pakistani army spokesman said on Monday that Pakistan had taken action against all Islamist militants including the Haqqani network, which is allied to Afghan Taliban insurgents.
"There are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. We have operated against all terrorists, including (the) Haqqani network," spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor told a media briefing in Islamabad.
Obama also took Pakistan to task for supporting militants, and sent Navy SEALs into the country to kill al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. It remains to be seen if Trump's rhetoric will change Pakistan's calculations in Afghanistan, which it sees as a vital strategic interest.
Trump expanded the US military's authority for American armed forces to target militant and criminal networks. He said that US enemies in Afghanistan "need to know they have nowhere to hide - that no place is beyond the reach of American arms."
"Our troops will fight to win," he added.
A US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Islamist Taliban government for harboring al Qaeda militants who plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. But US forces have remained bogged down there through the presidencies of Bush, Obama and now Trump. About 2,400 US forces have died in Afghanistan since the invasion.
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