MANILA: President Donald Trump has asked his advisers ‘tough questions’ about American strategy in Afghanistan and is not willing to continue on as before, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday.
The White House has launched a review of the US plan for Afghanistan after 16 years of war, and reports suggest that Trump’s national security team is divided on whether to send more troops or to pull out. Speaking in Manila on the sidelines of a regional security forum, Tillerson did not reveal his own advice to the president – but said Trump would not be content with continuing the fight as before.
“The president is not willing to accept that, so he is asking some tough questions,” Tillerson told reporters. Tillerson said the president’s National Security Council has met three times on the issue and that Vice President Mike Pence has joined Trump in taking a close interest in the strategy review.
“The president is asking some very, very pointed questions, and I think good questions that he should be asking. And perhaps these are questions that no-one has been willing to raise in the past. So we want to give him good thorough answers and good thorough analysis to go with that – a very clear-eyed view, a very realistic view of what the future is likely to look like,” Tillerson said.
Trump’s generals have called the Afghan conflict a “stalemate” and even after years of intensive help from the US and other NATO nations, Afghanistan’s security forces are still struggling to hold back an emboldened Taliban. In an early move to address the situation, Trump gave his Pentagon chief, former general Jim Mattis, broad powers to set troop numbers. But several months later the level remains stuck at about 8,400 US and about 5,000 NATO troops.
Mattis wants to wait until the White House has come up with a coherent strategy for not just Afghanistan but the broader region, notably Pakistan and how it deals with terror groups, before he commits to adjustments. But reports have suggested that other Trump advisers, including his influential strategy chief Steve Bannon, favor cutting American losses by pulling out or sending private military contractors to replace troops.
“How does this all play out and where does this go?” Tillerson asked, rhetorically.
“It’s one thing to say we’re just going to keep fighting because there’s no other options. There are always other options. And so that’s what the president’s asked us to fully explore,” he said.
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