A decision had been expected by the end of May
The delay comes amid an uptick in violence in Afghanistan
President Donald Trump is not expected to make a decision on the US strategy in Afghanistan for several more weeks, a senior administration official told CNN.
Trump’s national security team was expected to present him with recommendations on the path forward in Afghanistan – including adding several thousand more troops – in early May, and a US official told CNN at the time that Trump likely would make a decision upon returning from his first foreign trip.
But two weeks since his return, a senior administration official said the fully fleshed out interagency recommendations are now not expected to reach the President’s desk “for another couple weeks.” The delay comes amid an uptick in violence in Afghanistan that in just the last two weeks saw 150 people killed in a major terrorist attack in Kabul and three US service members killed during a joint US-Afghan military operation.
The official insisted the review process had not “stalled,” but acknowledged the administration had expected to be further along in the process.
“This thing isn’t done,” the official said, adding that the complexity of the problem and different perspectives from various government agencies have slowed the process.
Despite the increase in violence, the senior administration official said the President’s national security advisers are still preparing to recommend Trump commit no more than 5,000 additional US troops. US officials are also seeking an increased troop commitment from NATO military partners.
The official said Trump will be presented with an “ambitious” review of the US’s policies in South Asia that will go beyond recommendations on the US fight in Afghanistan to include US policy toward neighboring India and Pakistan. Trump has not been briefed on the full strategy, but has been receiving “periodic updates,” the official said.
Trump’s top Cabinet officials on national security matters, the National Security Council and the US ambassadors in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have all been involved in formulating the administration’s policy review, the official said.
The US faces a slew of complex problems in Afghanistan that go beyond the United States’ military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which dates back to 2001. Now, the US is also facing an increasingly aggressive insurgency from ISIS Khorasan, the terror group’s Afghanistan affiliate, and is also becoming increasingly wary of Iran’s deepening influence in the country.
There are about 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan, most of whom are involved in the NATO-led mission to train and advise Afghan troops. About 2,000 US service members are also engaged in a counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan aimed at targeting groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The proposal to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, which is supported by Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, continues to face pushback from West Wing officials allied with Steve Bannon, the President’s chief strategist.
On Tuesday evening at a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Mattis made clear that administration is taking a regional approach: “We’re looking at everything from the situation between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, obviously Iran, that whole South Asia area. … We are going to have to recognize that problems that come out of ungoverned space like that, … those problems do not stay there, they can come home to roost here.”
Mattis also said that he wanted more support from US allies: “We’ve got to determine what level of support is necessary, and how we orchestrate the international community, not just the Americans, but the international community to deal with this.”
Trump’s decision to deepen the US’s military footprint in Afghanistan would follow President Barack Obama’s attempts to draw down that troop presence and would cut against Trump’s campaign rhetoric, in which he lamented the US’s long-term involvement in Afghanistan and vowed to put a stop to the US’s “nation-building” policies.
The White House is also facing increasing pressure – and frustration – from Congress to make a decision on the future of the US fight in Afghanistan.
Elliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House foreign affairs committee, noted after the Kabul bombing late last month that “the Trump administration still has no strategy to wind down the conflict in Afghanistan.”
CNN’s Sara Murray, Jeremy Herb and Ryan Browne contributed reporting