Five things to watch for in Trump’s big speech – The Hill

President Trump will unveil his long-awaited strategy for Afghanistan in a prime-time address on Monday night from Fort Myer, Va.

Trump wrestled for months with how to move forward with the 16-year-old war that top generals say has descended into stalemate.

The president was expected to make a decision on the strategy before his first NATO meeting in May. When that didn’t happen, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump to tackle Afghanistan strategy at Camp David Four members of Joint Chiefs denounce racism US, Japan conduct air drills after North Korea issues Guam warning MORE promised Congress a decision would be made by mid-July.

But the final call wasn’t made until Friday, when Trump convened a high-profile meeting of his national security team at Camp David.

A decision likely became easier after the ouster of chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who was said to favor replacing U.S. troops with contractors in a plan opposed by Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. 

Here’s what to look for when Trump addresses the nation Monday night.

How many more troops?

The United States has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Trump gave Mattis the authority in June to send more troops there, but Mattis has held off deploying any more until Trump finalized a strategy.

“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 traveling with him on Sunday.

Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has said he needs a “few thousand” more troops to break the stalemate against the Taliban. 

That few thousand is said to equal about 4,000 U.S. troops. Those troops would be used to embed with conventional Afghan forces closer to combat — at the battalion level — and improve the capabilities of the Afghan air force and special operations forces.

Nicholson assured the Afghans on Sunday that the U.S. commitment to the country will continue.

“I assure you we are with you in this fight. We are with you, and we will stay with you,” Nicholson said during a ceremony at Camp Morehead, a training base for Afghan commandos southeast of Kabul. 

What’s the end game? 

Trump himself has questioned why America is still in Afghanistan after more than a decade of war. He’ll need to explain to the American people what victory would look like in Afghanistan and how a few thousand additional troops can achieve it when 100,000 before could not.

“We’ve been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years, how it’s going and what we should do in terms of additional ideas,” Trump said in July.

Military officials have described victory as getting the country secure enough to prevent another 9/11-style attack on the United States.

To do that, they say, the United States needs to have an open-ended presence to train Afghan forces to be able to fight insurgents and terrorists themselves, as well as to stabilize the Afghan government with anti-corruption and other reform efforts.

Officials have also said a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban is the only way to end the conflict, which they say U.S. forces can help with by reversing Taliban battlefield gains and forcing them to the negotiating table. 

Will Trump incorporate unconventional ideas?

Erik Prince, the founder of the private military company Blackwater, has been privately and publicly shopping a plan to replace most U.S. troops with contractors.

Prince’s plan would include sending 5,500 private military contractors to embed with Afghan forces at the battalion level. They would be supported by a 90-plane private air force.

The plan was championed by Bannon, but opposed by Mattis, McMaster, key leaders in Congress and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. With Bannon gone, the proposal appears dead. 

Still, Trump is said to have been deeply skeptical of the options the military presented to him. That skepticism could translate into using elements of Prince’s plan. 

Trump has also expressed interest in mining Afghan’s vast mineral resources, estimated to be worth up to $3 trillion.

Ghani reportedly pitched Trump in May on the potential to mine as a way to keep him interested in the country.

Trump has stressed a desire for the United States to be paid back for its military support before, such as with NATO. In that vein, he could emphasize the monetary benefits of continued involvement in Afghanistan during his address.

Will Trump mention Nicholson?

Trump reportedly got so fed up with the state of the war and the options being presented to him that he suggested firing Nicholson.

“We aren’t winning,” Trump reportedly said during a July Situation Room meeting on Afghanistan. “We are losing.”

Nicholson has been the top U.S. general in Afghanistan since March 2016 and has won accolades on Capitol Hill for his candor about the state of the war, which he first described as a stalemate in February. 

Last week, Mattis defended Nicholson, but would not say whether the president has confidence in the general. 

“Ask the president,” Mattis said.

“I will tell you right now, he is our commander in the field, he has the confidence of NATO, he has the confidence of Afghanistan, he has the confidence of the United States,” Mattis said.

What about Pakistan?

The administration has stressed that its strategy will take a regional approach, including pressuring Pakistan to more aggressively combat terrorist safe havens within its borders.

To do that, the administration could reduce aid or make it contingent on Pakistan’s efforts against terrorists.

Mattis has already withheld $50 million in aid from Pakistan over what the Pentagon described as its insufficient actions against the Haqqani Network. Still, the Pentagon said that decision was unrelated to the overall strategy review for Afghanistan that was then ongoing.

Other options to pressure Pakistan include taking away its status as a non-NATO ally and naming the country as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Mattis on Sunday said Trump’s strategy would address Pakistan, but would not get into more details ahead of the president’s address. 

“It is a South Asia strategy,” Mattis said. “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.”


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