WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump unveiled a new strategy for South Asia on Monday night (Tuesday in Pakistan), which he hopes will lead the United States and its allies to a clear victory in Afghanistan.

The new strategy encompasses the entire South and Central Asian region, but its main thrust is to win the war in Afghanistan by strengthening the US military and the Afghan government and by persuading Pakistan and India to support US war efforts.

“First, our nation must seek an honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives,” Mr Trump said. “The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.”

Now in its 16th year, the war in Afghanistan is the longest US military engagement with no foreseeable end. So far, the United States has lost more than 2,400 soldiers in Afghanistan while more than 20,000 service members have been injured in action. About 1,200 civilian American contractors have also been killed.

Plan involves all aspects of US power, says president

CNN reported on Tuesday that the war has already cost more than $841 billion to US taxpayers and if other expenses are included, the cost goes into trillions of dollars.

In a nationally televised speech to American troops at Fort Myer, Virginia, President Trump also mentioned these losses — both in lives and money — and yet vowed to beef up the American military presence in Afghanistan. This is “a strategy that promises to extend the longest war in US history and add billions to its financial cost,” CNN commented.

Afghanistan warned

Blaming previous administration for prolonging the war by hastily withdrawing troops and setting “artificial timelines”, Mr Trump said he would not make those mistakes. He promised to strengthen the US military presence in Afghanistan but specified neither the number of troops he planned to deploy, nor the yardstick by which he would judge the success of their mission there.

The US leader also had a warning for Afghanistan, saying that the American engagement there was not a “blank cheque” and yet he promised to stay there long enough to defeat the militants.

The president said he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS [the militant Islamic State group] and Al Qaeda”.

The strategy, he said, was based on three precepts: an honourable and worthy outcome, no hasty exit, and eliminating the threat of terrorism.

“We will fight to win,” said Mr Trump while explaining the first point.

“A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th,” he said.

“From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge,” said the president while explaining the third key point of his strategy.

Eliminating terrorists was also necessary because “to­day, 20 US-designated foreign terrorist organisations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, he said, adding that the US its partners were committed to defeating terrorists, no matter where they were hiding.

No timetables

The president said his strategy would be conditions-based and he would not set timetables for winning the war or withdrawing troops. “I’ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military options,” he said.

The new strategy, he said, would involve all aspects of American power — diplomacy, economic might, intelligence and military stren­gth — to advance US interests in the South Asian region and around the world.

“We will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanis­tan,” he said. “These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide; that no place is beyond the reach of American might and Ameri­cans arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful.”

He pledged that the US military would have the rules of engagement they needed to take swift, decisive actions. “I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our war fighters that prevented the secretary of defence and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy,” he said.

“Micromanagement from Washington, DC, does not win battles. They’re won in the field, drawing upon the judgement and expertise of wartime commanders, and front-line soldiers, acting in real time with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.”

Mr Trump also assured Afghanistan that the United States would continue to support the government in Kabul and the Afghan military.

After the president’s speech, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement he had directed Gen Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to get ready to carry out the strategy. “I will be in consultation with the secretary general of Nato and our allies — several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers,” he said. “Together, we will assist the Afghan security forces to destroy the terrorist hub.”

Published in Dawn, August 23rd, 2017