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Trump & national security team discuss Afghanistan

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    Posted: 19-Jul-2017 at 11:01pm
President Trump presided over a rare meeting of his full national security team Wednesday in the White House. The subject was the future of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, and hovering over the discussion was a big question: How committed is the president to a long-term and costly American presence in the country?

Trump has said little about America’s longest war since taking office in January, but the debate over how to stabilize the country and reverse the Taliban’s momentum has divided top officials in the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House in recent weeks.

The meeting Wednesday was designed to tee up final decisions for the president in what has been a long and difficult policy review, said current and former U.S. officials.

Trump gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority more than a month ago to send as many as 3,900 additional troops to Afghanistan on top of the roughly 8,500 currently there. But Mattis has yet to pull the trigger on sending the additional forces until the administration can agree on a final strategy for Afghanistan, said U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing internal planning.

“He’s clearly being cautious about cashing that check,” said a former U.S. official who has participated in the administration debate. “Mattis is either not persuaded that there’s a strategic rationale for the troops or he’s not persuaded that the decision will ultimately fly with the president — or both.”

The meeting that Trump led in the White House did not focus on the size of the American force in Afghanistan but looked at America’s broader approach to the region and its strategy regarding Pakistan, which has provided a haven for the Taliban.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have pressed for a more punitive approach to Pakistan aimed at forcing it to cut ties to the Afghan Taliban.

But such an approach has been met with skepticism by senior officials in the Pentagon and the State Department, who said that Pakistan is unlikely to change its behavior and that efforts to pressure Islamabad would likely lead to greater instability in the region.

Top U.S. officials have also been divided over whether to seek peace negotiations with the Taliban now or wait until the new U.S. strategy has begun to shift the momentum on the battlefield. “The McMaster view is that you should not negotiate with the Taliban while they are still ascendant,” said the former U.S. official.

But the current U.S.-Afghan war strategy is built around a four-year plan to push back the Taliban that is not likely to yield significant results until its later stages, U.S. officials said.

Earlier this week, Trump met over lunch with service members who had fought in Afghanistan and suggested that his patience with the war might be running out.

“It’s our longest war. We’ve been there for many years,” Trump told reporters before the lunch. “We’ve been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas.”

One challenge for Trump is that there are not a lot of new options available to him that do not come with a big price tag. In recent months, Trump has loosened the rules governing American airstrikes, allowing U.S. forces to boost the air campaign against the Taliban to levels not seen since 2012, when the United States had 100,000 troops in the country.

“I’m skeptical that the strategy can be dramatically improved,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “You can try to be tougher on Pakistan. You can try to make clear that we are there for a long-term commitment. But I don’t expect a dramatic metamorphosis of this mission.”

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