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Donald Trump today put America on a new war-footing in Afghanistan by ditching his pre-election calls for the withdrawal of US forces.
Thousands more American soldiers are now expected to be sent to the war-torn country to strengthen the battle against the Taliban, Islamic State-linked groups and al-Qaeda.
The president’s dramatic U-turn was backed by the Government which stressed the need to “stay the course” in Afghanistan to fight terrorists plotting murderous attacks on the West.
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon hailed as “very welcome” Mr Trump’s decision, which came despite previous demands for US soldiers to be brought home immediately.
Sir Michael spoke to US Defence Secretary James Mattis ahead of Mr Trump’s announcement.
“We agreed that despite the challenges, we have to stay the course in Afghanistan to help build up its fragile democracy and reduce the terrorist threat to the West,” said Sir Michael.
“It’s in all our interests that Afghanistan becomes more prosperous and safer.”
The UK already has 500 military personnel in Afghanistan on Nato’s Resolute Support training, advising and assisting mission.
A further 85 are being deployed later this year.
Defence sources played down the prospect of even more British soldiers going to Afghanistan, though the UK could offer more support in terms of aircraft or logistical capabilities.
Mr Trump ran for the presidency calling for a swift US withdrawal from Afghanistan and he acknowledged yesterday that he was going against his own instincts in approving the new campaign plan sought by his military advisers.
In a prime-time televised address from the Fort Myer military base outside Washington, he gave few details about America’s new plans but promised a stepped-up military campaign against Taliban insurgents who have gained ground in recent months against US-backed Afghan government forces.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” he stressed.
“A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
The Taliban swiftly condemned Mr Trump’s decision to keep American troops in Afghanistan without a withdrawal timetable.
“If the US does not pull all its forces out of Afghanistan, we will make this country the 21st century graveyard for the American empire,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.
The Kabul government controls only around two thirds of the country and president Ashraf Ghani welcomed Mr Trump’s new strategy.
“I am grateful to President Trump and the American people for this affirmation of support … for our joint struggle to rid the region from the threat of terrorism,” he said.
Mr Trump also singled out Pakistan, accusing it of harbouring militants in safe havens on its soil.
US officials said the president had signed off on General Mattis’ plans to send about 4,000 more troops to add to the roughly 8,400 already in Afghanistan training and supporting the Afghan national army.
However, the numbers are dwarfed by the troop surge under Barack Obama which saw more than 100,000 US forces in the country but which was still unable to bring the conflict to an end before he left office.
Mr Trump insisted through the speech that the Afghan government, Pakistan, India, and NATO allies step up their own commitment to resolving the 16-year conflict in which about 2,400 US and more than 450 British military personnel have died.
“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour terrorists,” he said.
Senior US officials warned he could reduce security assistance for Pakistan unless nuclear-armed Islamabad cooperates more.
However, Pakistani army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said Pakistan had taken action against all Islamist militants.
“There are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan,” he added.
Mr Obama sent Navy SEALs into Pakistan in 2011 to kill al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the architect of the September 11, 2001, attacks that triggered the war in Afghanistan.
The Taliban government was overthrown by US-backed Afghan forces in late 2001 but American forces have been bogged down there ever since with US military chiefs warning recently of a stalemate with the Taliban.
“The unfortunate truth is that this strategy is long overdue and in the interim the Taliban has made dangerous inroads,” said senior Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Senator Jack Reed, the senior Democrat on the committee, criticised what he called a speech short on details.
While, Breitbart News, the hard-right news site to which recently ousted White House strategic adviser Steve Bannon has returned as executive chairman, said on its home page that Trump “reverses course” and “defends flip-flop in somber speech.”
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