U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Iraq's Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani in Erbil, Iraq
BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON - 22 August 2017: The Pentagon has yet to decide how many more U.S. troops to send to Afghanistan as it is still drawing up a plan, Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday, after President Donald Trump committed the United States to an open-ended war there.
Trump offered few specifics in a televised address about Afghanistan on Monday, but promised a stepped-up military campaign against Taliban insurgents who have gained ground against U.S.-backed Afghan government forces. He also singled out neighboring Pakistan for harboring militants, an accusation denied by Islamabad.
The Afghan government welcomed Trump's speech but the Taliban said it would make the country a "graveyard for the American empire."
Mattis said he was waiting for a plan from the U.S. military's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, before deciding how many more troops to send to Afghanistan, where the United States is fighting its longest war.
"When he brings that to me, I will determine how many more we need to send in," Mattis told reporters during a visit to Baghdad. "It may or may not be the number that is bandied about."
U.S. officials have said Trump has given Mattis the authority to send about 4,000 additional troops to add to the roughly 8,400 already in Afghanistan.
The United States appears to be in no hurry to send new forces. Trump authorized Mattis in June to set future Afghan troop levels amid a long and difficult debate in the administration about how to handle the 16-year-long war.
Trump has previously called for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Monday he said his original instinct was to pull out all American troops but that he was convinced otherwise by his military advisers after a lengthy strategy review.
"The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable," he said. "A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS (Islamic State) and al Qaeda, would instantly fill."
U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban's hard-line Islamist government in late 2001 because it sheltered al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington that year.
U.S. forces have been bogged down since in a war that has vexed three American presidents. About 2,400 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan.
Trump said "our troops will fight to win", but he also stressed that ultimately Afghanistan's police and army must do most of the fighting to defeat the Taliban and allied Islamist militants.
Most of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan work with a NATO-led training and advising mission, with the rest part of a counter-terrorism force that mostly targets pockets of al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani welcomed Trump's strategy, saying it would expand the training mission for Afghan forces, which includes building its fledgling air force and doubling the size of the Afghan special forces.
The Taliban condemned Trump's decisions.
"If the U.S. does not pull all its forces out of Afghanistan, we will make this country the 21st century graveyard for the American empire," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.
Trump had criticized his predecessor, President Barack Obama, for setting deadlines for drawing down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he declined to put a timeline on expanded U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
In his speech, Trump said U.S. support was not a "blank check" for Afghanistan's often-divided and corruption-plagued government and insisted he would not engage in nation-building, a practice he has accused his predecessors of doing at huge cost.
Trump signaled a tough line on Pakistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan, and called on India to play a greater role in Afghanistan.
"We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens," he said, referring to complaints that Taliban and other militants move freely in Pakistan.
RELATIONS WITH PAKISTAN
Analysts said Trump's approach probably will not change Pakistan's strategic calculations and might push it in directions Washington does not want it to go.
Trump's call for Pakistan's great rival India to be more active on Afghanistan, in particular, will ring alarm bells for Pakistan's generals, analysts said.
"Trump's policy of engaging India and threatening action may actually constrain Pakistan and lead to the opposite of what he wants," said Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst.
Successive U.S. administrations have struggled with how to deal with nuclear-armed Pakistan. Washington fumes about inaction against the Taliban, but Pakistan has been helpful on other counter-terrorism efforts, including against al Qaeda and Islamic State militants.
The United States also has no choice but to use Pakistani roads to resupply its troops in landlocked Afghanistan. U.S. officials fret that if Pakistan becomes an active foe, it could further destabilize Afghanistan and endanger U.S. soldiers.
Pakistan's foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment, but ahead of the Trump speech Pakistani army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said on Monday: "There are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan."
Isolating Pakistan could push it more closely toward China, with which it already has close diplomatic, economic and security ties.
Asked about Trump's speech, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Pakistan was on the front line in the struggle against terrorism and had made "great sacrifices" and important contributions in the fight.
Russia does not believe that Trump's new strategy on Afghanistan will lead to any significant positive changes in the country, the Interfax news agency cited an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry source as saying on Tuesday.