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Trump acknowledges flip-flop on Afghanistan
00:45 - Source: CNN

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President Trump unveiled the administration's Afghanistan strategy in a speech on Monday

In it, he authorized more troops and said there would be no more nation building

Washington CNN  — 

President Donald Trump’s newly unveiled Afghanistan strategy is meant to pressure the Taliban to the negotiating table by making clear there’s no way to win on the battlefield, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday.

“We are there to facilitate and ensure that there is a pathway for reconciliation and peace talks,” Tillerson said. “As the pressure begins to take hold, we believe we already know there are certain moderate elements of the Taliban who we think will be ready and develop a way forward.”

Trump’s South Asia plan is meant to force the Taliban to accept that they “will not win a battlefield victory,” Tillerson said. Addressing the terrorist group directly, he said, “We may not win one, but neither will you.”

He cautioned that the effort will take time. “It is time to begin a process, a lengthy process, of reconciliation and a peace accord in Afghanistan,” he said. “How long that will take will be based on conditions on the ground.”

Tillerson was expanding on Trump’s Monday speech that laid out the administration’s approach to the war of almost 16 years, which has claimed more than 2,000 US lives and billions of dollars since it was launched by President George W. Bush in October 2001.

Trump’s plan resembles the strategies of previous administrations, with a few tweaks and deliberately few details, including how long the US will stay.

The President authorized more troops and declared that the US will avoid nation building, concentrating instead on empowering the Afghans to fight their own battles. Under Trump, the US will also continue to engage regional neighbors, such as India and Pakistan, in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.

And while the President is continuing past pressure on Pakistan, he and Tillerson are taking a much more public route with US complaints over Islamabad’s ties to terror groups.

No signals ahead

On Tuesday, Tillerson declined to offer many more details beyond what the President had. “We are not going to signal ahead what our plans are,” he said.

“We’re not going to signal an increase, decrease, timing, any of that,” he added, referring to troop levels, among other things. “It will be driven by conditions on the ground.”

He added, though, that “the intent is there will be visibility to troop levels once the decision has been made.” And Tillerson added that, “the only way we can defeat an enemy that is as nimble and as cagey, tactically, as this enemy is, we have to be as cagey and tactical as they are. And we’ve not been fighting that way.”

The top US diplomat also doubled down on Trump’s comments about Pakistan, noting that it can play an important role in delivering the Taliban to the negotiating table but warned that Islamabad must stop offering safe haven to terrorist groups or face consequences.

A spokesperson for Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi said late Tuesday the leader was “disappointed” by the US’s policy statement, adding it “ignores the enormous sacrifices” made in the fight against terrorism.

“Pakistan has been and will continue to be part of the global counter terrorism efforts,” the statement said.

The US and Pakistan have long maintained a close security partnership, with the US providing hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Islamabad in recent years. Much of that money goes toward supporting counter terrorism efforts and capabilities.

“We have witnessed terrorist organizations being given safe haven inside Pakistan to plan and carry out attacks against US servicemen and officials, disrupting peace efforts inside Afghanistan,” Tillerson said. “Pakistan must adopt a different approach.”

The US will condition future support for Pakistan “on them delivering results in this area,” Tillerson said. Consequences could include Pakistan’s loss of status as a non-NATO ally and cuts to aid.

“We have put people on notice that if you’re providing safe haven to terrorists, be warned: we are going to engage those providing safe haven and ask them to change what they are doing,” Tillerson said.

Apart from the Afghan people, Tillerson said, Pakistan “will benefit more than any other nation,” particularly as the Taliban and other terror groups such as the Haqqani network strengthen to such a degree that they might soon threaten Islamabad itself, he said.

Trump, like his predecessors, will pursue a strategy that combines military and diplomatic levers of influence to stabilize the country and deny a safe haven to terrorist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda.

The President offered little elaboration about the diplomatic side of that campaign, particularly how it would be carried out without a US ambassador in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

“A vacuum for terrorists”

Tillerson said Tuesday that, “we have very competent capable people on the ground now” to handle the diplomatic challenges. He added that the administration’s diplomatic approach, like the military approach, will be “conditions based.”

“We must continue the reform efforts we’ve been working on for some time,” Tillerson said, “in particular much more rigorous efforts” around fighting government corruption.

In his Monday address to troops at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, Trump offered few specifics, but he did outline reasons for his decision to extend and expand the US presence in Afghanistan, a reversal from his strident past criticism of previous administrations for involvement there.

Leaving “would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda,” Trump said, as he described an extended deliberative process with his national security staff about how to proceed in Afghanistan. Trump said he had been told that decision making from within the Oval Office is more complicated.