KABUL — The two top U.S. diplomatic and military officials here sought Thursday to allay confusion and concern among Afghans about President Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan, stressing American support for possible peace talks with Taliban insurgents alongside a new, open-ended military commitment.
Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the senior U.S. Embassy official, special charge d’affaires Hugo Llorens, spoke at a joint news conference about the importance of reaching a settlement with the Taliban in an attempt to end the nearly 16-year war.
In an address Monday, Trump focused on “winning” the war and depicted an accord as a remote possibility. Both U.S. officials were careful to avoid contradicting the president, framing their comments as additional “details” and reinforcement of his message.
“We are determined to pursue the goal of a political settlement. As these terrorist groups realize that they cannot win, they will see that their best option is to pursue peace,” Nicholson said. He invited the Taliban to “lay down your arms and join Afghan society. Help build a better future for this country and your own children.”
Although Afghan officials embraced Trump’s message, many Afghan commentators expressed concern this week that it focused too narrowly on fighting the Taliban and terrorists. Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai called it a formula based on “killing, killing, killing.”
Afghans also voiced worries about Trump’s declaration that the U.S. government would no longer pursue “nation building” in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The United States has invested billions of dollars since 2001 in efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, yet the country is still struggling with political divisions and a moribund economy.
Nicholson and Llorens — following similar reassurances made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington after Trump’s speech — emphasized that the new policy would be much more than a battle plan. Llorens said it would “integrate all the instruments of American power,” including diplomacy and economic support.
But Nicholson also emphasized the U.S. military commitment to the war effort, vowing to pursue and “annihilate” Islamic State forces in Afghanistan and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for international terrorists.
Like Trump, the general declined to say how many additional U.S. troops would be sent. But he rejected criticism that the new military strategy would echo previous U.S. policies that did not make significant headway, even with more than 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan at one time.
One difference Nicholson cited was the current Afghan government, which he called a “trusted” partner that seeks to “reform and professionalize” the security forces. He also praised the Afghan special operations forces, which will be doubled in size and trained by U.S. and NATO advisers.
“These brave soldiers have never lost a battle,” Nicholson said. “With the additional support we will provide them, they will become larger and more lethal.”
Nicholson expressed concern about the high level of Afghan war casualties, saying, “The United States deeply appreciates and respects the sacrifice and strength of the Afghan people.” Rising casualty rates have become a source of growing concern here, with more than 11,000 Afghan civilians killed or injured last year.
Nicholson also touted the shift from an American strategy of support based on “arbitrary timelines” to one “guided by conditions” on the ground. “You can believe it will be different, because we removed the calendar from the equation,” he said.