The United States will reduce its 14,000-troop presence in Afghanistan as progress is made in negotiations toward a peaceful settlement of the 17-year war, President Trump told the nation Tuesday night, in an apparent loosening of orders he gave the Pentagon in late December to cut the number in half.
In his State of the Union address, Trump also refrained from giving a definitive date for withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria. In a single-sentence reference to that conflict, he said that as the “remnants” of the Islamic State are being destroyed, “it is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
With most of his speech devoted to his domestic policies and the economy, Trump’s speech broke little new ground on his foreign-policy priorities.
He restated his announced intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, indirectly warning that the United States would build new nuclear systems to counter Russian gains.
“Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far,” Trump said.
Trump also announced a date and place for a second round of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — Feb. 27-28, in Vietnam. “If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea, with potentially millions of people,” he claimed.
“Much remains to be done,” he said, “but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.” Regional experts have questioned whether significant progress has been made and whether North Korea is sincere in pledging denuclearization.
On other issues, Trump’s one-sentence condemnation of Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela, and recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president, was met with strong applause, as was his condemnation of Iran as “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.”
He spoke of his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but he did not mention the long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace proposal he has said is being prepared under the direction of his son-in-law, senior White House aide Jared Kushner.
Recalling his campaign promise to end conflicts abroad, Trump said that “great nations do not fight endless wars.”
But his reluctance to put a date on promised troop withdrawals reflected the criticism and concern that met his mid-December orders to immediately start a complete exit from Syria and to begin planning to remove up to half of the force in Afghanistan.
In subsequent remarks on Syria, Trump said withdrawal would take place but would be slow and deliberate.
A large, bipartisan majority in the Senate voted Monday to oppose troop withdrawals from both countries. The nonbinding resolution, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), called on the White House to consult with Congress on developing long-term strategies in both nations, “including a thorough accounting of the risks of withdrawing too hastily.”
Trump referred to last week’s announcement that his special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, had drawn up a draft framework with Taliban representatives in which the militants agreed they would not allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to operate on Afghan territory and the United States would agree to withdraw its forces.
Khalilzad said the draft was only a preliminary step in discussions that eventually would move to talks on a complete cease-fire and a political road map for the future agreed on between the Taliban and the Afghan government. President Ashraf Ghani has sharply objected to any talks that do not include the government, and his senior aides accused Khalilzad of “disrespect” and of trying to replace him with a more malleable successor.
In a brief mention, Trump said that he had “accelerated our negotiations to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan. The opposing side is also very happy to be negotiating,” he said. “As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troops’ presence and focus on counterterrorism.”
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement — but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace.” The “other side,” he said, “would like to do the same thing. It’s time.”
Trump repeated familiar inaccuracies and exaggerations in congratulating himself on his policies in the Middle East. He has frequently described the situation in Iraq and Syria as “a mess” with the Islamic State ascendant. “When I took office,” he said, using an acronym for the militant group, “ISIS controlled more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria. Today we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty killers.”
The fight against the Islamic State was, however, well underway during the Obama administration. According to the Defense Department, the militants controlled at least 34,000 square miles of territory in both countries at its peak in late 2014. About half of that total had been liberated by the end of 2016, including all Iraqi cities except for western Mosul, and the northeastern section of Syria. The battle for Raqqa, the militants’ de facto capital in Syria, began in October 2016.
Trump also said in his address that the United States had spent “more than $7 trillion” on wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. A figure that he has used in the past, it has been widely discounted as including projections of veterans’ care for the next 35 years.