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Mattis Ponders Afghan Troop Surge; Trump Speech Reaction Mixed

FILE - Defense Secretary James Mattis attends a news conference.
FILE - Defense Secretary James Mattis attends a news conference.

Following an announcement by President Donald Trump declaring the United States' commitment to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Tuesday he has not yet made a decision on how many troops to send to the South Asian country.

Speaking from Baghdad, Mattis said he is consulting with Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and will make the decision based on his plan.

In an evening address from a military base outside Washington Monday, Trump said that he would not talk about numbers of troops or plans for further military activities, unveiling a "condition-based approach" to defeating terrorism in Afghanistan, without going into detail.

Troop levels

The president has approved up to 4,000 more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to sources, speaking on condition they not be named.

Currently, there are about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Most are advising Afghan forces, though some are tasked with carrying out counterterrorism operations against groups such as the Taliban or the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate.

That number is down significantly from the height of former President Barack Obama’s troop surge, which saw nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in August 2010.

After years of deriding the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a "complete waste," President Donald Trump on Monday explained why he now believes it is in the United States' interest to remain committed to the South Asian country.

His goal, he said, is to stop the re-emergence of safe havens for terrorists to threaten America and make sure they do not get their hands on nuclear weapons.

"Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out. I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will," Trump told about 2,000 service members at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

Immediately following the president’s speech, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement saying: "We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions. We look to the international community, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbors, to join us in supporting an Afghan peace process."

Trump, in his address, however, very publicly and directly put Pakistan on notice.

"We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists they are fighting. But that will have to change and that will change immediately," Trump vowed.

WATCH: Highlights of Trump speech

Excerpts of Trump US-Afghanistan Strategy Speech
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The president’s address received mixed initial reviews.

"The president failed to define the goals or objectives that would direct the actions of the whole of government approach. The only thing he demonstrated was that his original belief that you can rip troops out of a combat zone without considering the fallout of that action was, in fact, wrong," said Moira Whelan, a partner of BlueDot Strategies and former senior State Department official.

"Trump repealed his original Afghanistan position, but he failed to replace it with something that will make America safer," Whelan told VOA.

FILE - photo provided by Operation Resolute Support, U.S. Soldiers with Task Force Iron maneuver an M-777 howitzer, so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan.
FILE - photo provided by Operation Resolute Support, U.S. Soldiers with Task Force Iron maneuver an M-777 howitzer, so it can be towed into position at Bost Airfield, Afghanistan.

Longest US war

The conflict in Afghanistan – with a factionalized unity government riddled with systemic corruption -- has dragged on for 16 years, becoming the longest U.S. war ever, since the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks on the United States.

Expressing frustration, Trump informed Afghanistan that the commitment by the United States is not unlimited and America’s support not a blank check.

The American people, he warned, expect "to see real reforms and real results."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, at Trump's request, spoke to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani on Monday ahead of the address.

Tillerson had spoken over the phone with Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, according to the State Department, about how the United States would like to work with each country to stabilize South Asia through a new, integrated regional strategy.

U.S. generals advised Trump to send several thousand more troops to break the stalemate and retake territory from the Taliban, which controls nearly half the country. But Trump, who campaigned on an "America First" foreign policy, has been reluctant to commit more resources to the country.

FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.


Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani expressed appreciation for Trump's decision Tuesday.

"Today is a special day because a few hours ago the United States' president delivered his speech," Ghani said. "His message was that after this, there is no limited time or conditions on their support for Afghanistan. America will stand with Afghanistan until the end."

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg expressed support for Trump's strategy, saying the alliance aims to ensure Afghanistan cannot be a terrorist sanctuary.

Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a defense liaison at the Afghan embassy in Washington, told VOA he welcomes the renewed U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

"We think this will ultimately take us to what we want in the end -- allowing no safe haven for terrorists, helping the Afghan government stand on its own feet and putting more pressure on Pakistan," he said.

A spokesperson for India's Ministry for External Affairs also welcomed Trump's pledge to confront "issues of safe havens and other forms of cross-border support enjoyed by terrorists."

There was no immediate public reaction from Pakistan's government, but Pakistan's Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told VOA that the government would be issuing a statement, without specifying when.

"There is neither any tolerance nor any safe haven for any terrorist in Pakistan. Pakistan has paid the highest price for (fighting) terrorism. So, we are fighting terrorism not for any country's stake but for our own future and for our country's sake," Iqbal said.

Retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis said he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, "when there were 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops." He said he saw "firsthand that the insurgent and terrorist fighters cannot be militarily defeated."

"Short of a return of major deployments of tens of thousands of U.S. combat troops, this is not a winnable war," Davis told VOA. "No matter what the president said, this war flatly cannot be won militarily. To set a strategy dependent on militarily defeating the enemy is going to fail, just as surely as all other attempts have over the past 16 years."

In Washington, Victor Beattie, Bill Gallo and Chris Hannas contributed to this report