President Trump has not yet made a decision on whether to approve a military proposal to expand the U.S. role in Afghanistan with more troops, and may not do so until after his upcoming foreign trip, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said Friday.
In a briefing on the nine-day, four-country tour, McMaster said that “the President wants to hear from our allies” about the plan, and “he’ll have an opportunity to do so at the NATO summit,” on May 25 in Brussels, and at a meeting the next day with Group of Seven partners in Sicily.
“What we’ll have at the end of this next few weeks . . . is an opportunity for a much more effective strategy for the problem set in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region broadly,” McMaster said.
The proposed new strategy, which has been the subject of a lengthy White House review and is backed by top Cabinet officials and McMaster himself, would also give the military far broader authority to use airstrikes against Taliban militants in Afghanistan and potentially move U.S. troops aiding the Afghan army closer to the battlefield. It also anticipates that NATO members will increase their own troop presence in Afghanistan.
Some Trump advisers, however, see the plan as out of step with Trump’s campaign pledge to lessen U.S. military involvement overseas, and question whether it would be any more successful than earlier, failed efforts to defeat the Taliban or bring them to the negotiating table.
Overall, McMaster characterized Trump’s first overseas trip as a reaffirmation of U.S. global leadership, as well as a chance to solidify the President’s personal relationships with world leaders and to reiterate his burden-sharing message.
“President Trump understands that America First does not mean America alone,” McMaster said.
The trip will also provide a distraction from the turmoil surrounding Trump’s firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and ongoing investigations of any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
It takes Trump out of the domestic spotlight as a number of troublesome issues, including federal court consideration of his blocked travel ban and Senate efforts to come up with a viable health-care plan.
Trump departs Washington next Friday for Saudi Arabia, where he will spend three days holding separate summits with Saudi King Salman, the Gulf Cooperation Council of Persian Gulf states, and an invited selection of leaders from Muslim-majority countries.
“He will encourage our Arab and Muslim partners to take bold new steps to promote peace” and confront extremist organizations, McMaster said. Trump expects to have a “galvanizing effect” on bringing them together and increasing their contributions — monetary and otherwise — to stopping the spread of radical violence.
Saudi Arabia has issued invitations to the larger meeting, including a number of countries that have widely differing views and policies, such as Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Yemen.
From Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Trump will travel to Jerusalem. In addition to visits with Israeli leaders, he plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, most likely in nearby Bethlehem in the West Bank. Asked to comment on reports from the region that Trump would try to arrange a meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, McMaster declined to respond.
“It’ll be whatever the president wants to do. . . . The final plans aren’t set yet,” he said. McMaster also said that no final decision has been made on Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a highly controversial act that Arab allies have advised against. The president has until June to decide whether to sign a six-month waiver of a law ordering the move, as every president has done since Congress passed a law ordering the move in 1995.
On May 24, Trump will meet in Rome with Pope Francis, completing a trifecta that McMaster called “truly historic.”
“No president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all on one trip. . . . He will bring a message of tolerance and of hope to billions,” McMaster said.
From Rome, Trump travels on to NATO and then to the G-7.