Trump to make key Afghanistan, South Asia policy speech after turbulent week

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 August, 2017, 9:50pm

Donald Trump will make a prime time speech about Afghanistan and South Asia on Monday as he looks to get his presidency back on track following the departure of chief strategist Stephen Bannon and a week of tumult over his response to white-nationalist violence.

The president ends his 17-day “working holiday”, spent largely at his golf resort in New Jersey, and returned to Washington on Sunday with his popularity at a low ebb. Monday night, he’ll “address our nation’s troops and the American people” at 9pm Washington time, according to a White House statement.

The speech comes after Trump faced widespread criticism and had to disband several advisory councils over his remarks that appeared to confer legitimacy on white supremacists following a violent rally August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The address at Fort Myer, a US Army post in Arlington, Virginia, a few miles from the White House, could be one of Trump’s most important speeches yet.

Details of the revised US Afghanistan policy were hashed out Friday at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, where Trump assembled his defence and national security teams for an hours-long meeting.

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“Important day spent at Camp David with our very talented Generals and military leaders. Many decisions made, including on Afghanistan,” Trump said Saturday on Twitter.

A key point is whether Trump is prepared to commit more troops to America’s longest-running conflict, which the US initiated after the September 11, terrorist attacks. Bannon, who opposed an expanding presence, wasn’t at the Camp David meeting and departed as Trump’s chief strategist on August 18.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster back a proposal to add troops focused on training Afghan special forces. It’s intended to show a US commitment to stay in the country, prod Taliban fighters to the negotiating table and stem the increased presence of terrorist groups including Islamic State.

Mattis was careful not to pre-empt his boss on the Afghanistan speech when he spoke to reporters on a military aircraft Sunday en route to Amman. He said he was satisfied with the process of formulating the new war strategy while not giving details.

Trump gives defence chief power to decide on deploying more US troops to Afghanistan

“I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous,” Mattis said, according to the Associated Press. Trump had been presented with multiple options, he added.

Months ago, Trump gave his defence chief the go-ahead to set troop levels in Afghanistan as he saw fit, but Mattis didn’t take him up on the offer. “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. In that regard, the president has made a decision,” Mattis said.

Monday’s speech also gives Trump a chance to hit the reset button on his role as a statesman after weeks of sabre rattling with North Korea that seemed to put the US on the brink of a nuclear conflict.

An NBC News/Marist poll released on Sunday showed that voters in three key Midwestern states were concerned about Trump’s foreign policy moves. Six in 10 said the US’s role on the world stage has been weakened.

Trump assigned Vice-President Mike Pence to lead the process of formulating a strategy for Afghanistan, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

Pence organised and led meetings with military and national security advisers throughout August, and collected and analysed information on the various scenarios, the person said.

As he travelled back from Latin America on August 17, Pence continued to review the various options, which were weighed during the Camp David meeting the next day. Rather than backing a particular option, Pence played more of the role of an honest broker, making sure that Trump got an accurate, compete picture of the different scenarios, the person said.

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Another unknown is what changes Trump plans for the “Southern Asian” part of the equation. That may reflect the view of Mattis and Tillerson that any solution for Afghanistan requires getting tough on neighbouring Pakistan for sheltering the Taliban and other groups. It’s not possible to “separate the two,” Mattis said last week.

Trump’s speech was set for the same time that House Speaker Paul Ryan was due to hold a town-hall meeting on CNN to promote the Republican legislative agenda. CNN said it would postpone Ryan’s event until after Trump’s speech.