News Brief: Trump Unveils Afghan Strategy, He'll Hold Rally In Phoenix

Aug 22, 2017
Originally published on August 24, 2017 7:23 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So we had this prime time address last night by President Trump. He was outlining his strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That's right. Trump, who ran on an America First campaign, said his original instinct was to pull out of Afghanistan. But after months of deliberating with his national security team, the president faced the lessons of Iraq and what happened there after the U.S. withdrew in 2011.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.

CHANG: So if not withdrawal, what then? President Trump said he'd focus going after - he'd focus on going after terrorists in the region. And he pledged to end a strategy of nation building. His remarks were notable, though, for what they lacked, like details.

GREENE: Yeah. That is very true. And I want to start with NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning, Mary Louise.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So not a lot of details. I mean, listening last night, how would you characterize the Afghanistan strategy that we heard about?

KELLY: If you had to pick one line that captured the spirit of it, David, it would be that one y'all just nodded to where the president said, we are not nation building. We are killing terrorists. Now, the U.S. has been killing terrorists, going after terrorists since day one of this war. So what exactly will change? We don't know. But let me play you a little bit more of what he said.

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TRUMP: We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.

KELLY: David, he did say he would use all the tools available to him - diplomatic, economic. But the clear focus here was military. He talked about crushing the enemy. He talked about using overwhelming force.

CHANG: But there were no details on that military planning.

KELLY: There - so here's what we didn't hear, Ailsa. We didn't hear troop numbers. We didn't hear how we should measure progress in this war. We did hear one change. And this was a clear swipe at President Obama. The - President Trump talked about no open-ended commitment, shifting from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. Obama, you may remember, was criticized for putting an expiry date on troop surges that he ordered. And the concern then as now was that if you say troops are coming home by such and such a date, then the Taliban has no incentive to come negotiate.

GREENE: It sends a signal to the enemy. And they can make decisions based on that.

KELLY: Right.

GREENE: You know, Mary Louise, some of the analysts we spoke to leading up to the speech were saying that there needed to be a real emphasis on diplomacy. And President Trump, I mean, he framed this as America's strategy in Afghanistan and also in South Asia. And he really singled out roles for both Pakistan and India.

KELLY: He did. He called for a stronger relationship with India, which of course is Pakistan's neighbor and also Pakistan's archrival. So it will be interesting to see how that goes down in Islamabad. Speaking of Islamabad, on Pakistan, he said he's going to put more pressure on Pakistan to stop providing safe havens to the Taliban, to other groups. What form that will take? We don't know. It was short on details there and how it will differ from what Trump's predecessors as president have tried. Putting pressure on Pakistan is not a new strategy. And I challenge you to name an American president who has found Pakistan an easy ally to work with.

GREENE: Yeah. None, probably.

KELLY: Yeah.

CHANG: So what struck you is the overall tone of the speech?

KELLY: Well, this was President Trump on script. He was on message. He was appealing for national unity. He said - he had one line that struck me. He said, when we send troops abroad to fight, they deserve to return to a country not at war at home. He never actually said the word Charlottesville, but the reference to recent events was clear.

GREENE: NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Mary Louise, thanks.

KELLY: You're welcome.

GREENE: So that is the view of the president's speech on this morning after from Washington. I want to get the view from Afghanistan now. We have Josh Smith on the line with Reuters. He is at Bagram Airfield, which is the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Hi, Josh. Josh, you there for us? All right, we might not have Josh Smith of Reuters on the line from Afghanistan. So Mary Louise, you're still with us, right?

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: I want to continue the conversation with you. You haven't gotten anywhere.

KELLY: I have not escaped the studio for Bagram.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well, you know, I was going to ask Josh, I mean, from Afghanistan, what the view is of the war right now and what things feel like. But, I mean, this is a place that you cover and pay attention to. What are the current conditions there? What is it like?

KELLY: Well, the interesting thing is, you know, as we keep saying, this is America's longest war in Afghanistan. We're approaching year 16 of this conflict since the U.S. invaded in the days after 9/11. There - by some measures, conditions there have improved. However, you look at who's actually in control of the country, and the Taliban control something close to half of it, which is remarkable after all of the many hundreds of billions - we're approaching a trillion dollars U.S. spent - has spent in the years since 9/11. And by that measure of progress, you have a country that is still not even under Afghan government control, nearly half of it.

GREENE: Which is - I mean, countries like Russia that have been involved in Afghanistan, I mean, they will make the point that no matter who is president of the United States, no matter what the strategy is, you're going to get bogged down. And that is just a reality that can't escape anyone.

KELLY: And it's interesting you mentioned Russia because another of the changes in these years since President George W. Bush first ordered U.S. troops into Afghanistan and then President Obama inherited and revisited that strategy, one of the changes has been the way that other players on the ground are in there. So Russia, for example, there have been reports of Russia channeling arms to the Taliban.

What we know at the very least is that Russia has inserted itself into the diplomatic talks as it's trying to help bring the Taliban to the table. That is raising all sorts of concerns. You know, there is a long history of the U.S. and Russia, of course, fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan. We are not there yet. But this is a different global political stage than we were at in 2001. And again, we don't have details of quite how the Trump strategy that he announced last night will take in all of those factors.

GREENE: Right. Well...

CHANG: I'm also struck that the president was talking about a corresponding diplomatic approach. But he has yet to name an ambassador in Kabul. I know that he got rid of the office of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Doesn't seem like there's a structure there yet for an actual diplomatic effort.

GREENE: Yeah, like mixed messages.

CHANG: Yeah.

KELLY: That's right. They're moving toward having in Afghanistan - an ambassador in Kabul. But it hasn't quite made its way through all the paperwork in Washington.

GREENE: NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Mary Louise, thank you twice...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...For giving us the view from Washington and Afghanistan.

CHANG: Yes. Thank you so much.

KELLY: Just double your welcome.

GREENE: Exactly. We appreciate it.

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GREENE: All right, we're going to move now from Afghanistan to Arizona.

CHANG: That's right. Later today, President Trump will hold a campaign rally in Phoenix. And he's doing this even though the mayor of Phoenix, a democrack (ph) - Democrat, Greg Stanton urged him to cancel the rally.

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GREG STANTON: This is not the time for a visit of this nature. It is so shortly after the tragedy in Charlottesville in which a young woman was murdered by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Unfortunately, the president failed the country.

GREENE: OK, let's talk to someone who knows Arizona very well. Its reporter Jude Joffe-Block who's on the line. Hi, Jude. And it seems like we have lost Jude Joffe-Block.

CHANG: Oh, man.

GREENE: (Laughter) Having some problems this morning, yeah. So, well, I mean, Ailsa, it's interesting that the president is going to Arizona.

CHANG: It sure is.

GREENE: And I'm curious...

CHANG: It's curious because, you know, he has been pretty hard on Arizona's two Republican senators.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: Hi this is Jude...

CHANG: Oh, great, Jude.

GREENE: We we're going to be chatting about Arizona without you. But it would be much better to have you part of the conversation. Why is the president going there now, do you think?

CHANG: Jude?

GREENE: Ailsa, we are struggling to keep people on line this morning.

CHANG: Wow, this is just a jinxed day.

GREENE: Can I ask you, Ailsa?

CHANG: Yes.

GREENE: You spend time - I mean, a lot of time covering Congress. I mean, Jeff Flake - Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona has been a really...

JOFFE-BLOCK: (Unintelligible).

CHANG: Oh.

GREENE: ...Really outspoken criticizing the president.

CHANG: Yes. He's been a very vocal critic. And the president has hit him back pretty hard. He recently tweeted that Jeff Flake is a non-issue in the Senate, that he's weak on borders. So you got to wonder if President Trump chose Arizona in part as a way to sort of kind of hit back at Senator Flake and also Senator John McCain, who he's criticized - you know, the other Republican senator in Arizona. He's criticized McCain for his vote on the health care bill.

GREENE: Yeah. And, I mean, we should say, a lot of people are looking at this event. It's extraordinary that the reelection campaign of the president, I mean, is organizing this event this early. A lot of people are wondering whether this is some sort of testing ground for the White House and for Donald Trump's political team as they begin to develop some kind of strategy for both the midterms in 2018, even looking forward to 2020.

CHANG: Yes. And after all the discord, all the divisiveness post-Charlottesville, this may be a way for President Trump to get back in touch with his base, to electrify him, to electrify the base and to also remind himself about, you know, what got him elected - what parts of the population are the most excited about, maybe, even some of the remarks he made post-Charlottesville.

GREENE: All right, we'll be watching very closely as the president lands in Phoenix today, where the mayor asked him not to come - a Democrat - but determined to speak to his base of supporters with a lot of news happening - immigration a big topic in Arizona. And also this, of course, is the day after the president gives a major primetime address on Afghanistan last night.

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