President Donald Trump said on Thursday he was “very close” to revealing his keenly awaited decision on the number of U.S. troops he plans to keep in Afghanistan.
The White House has launched a review of the U.S. plan for Afghanistan after 16 years of war, and reports suggest that Trump’s national security team is divided on whether to send more troops or to pull out. “We’re getting close. We’re getting very close. It’s a very big decision for me. I took over a mess, and we’re going to make it a lot less messy,” Trump said from his golf club retreat in New Jersey.
Trump’s generals have called the Afghan conflict a “stalemate” and even after years of intensive help from the U.S. and other NATO nations, Afghanistan’s security forces are still struggling to hold back an emboldened Taliban.
In an early move to address the situation, Trump gave his Pentagon chief, former general Jim Mattis, broad powers to set troop numbers. But several months later the level remains stuck at about 8,400 U.S. and about 5,000 NATO troops. Mattis wants to wait until the White House has come up with a coherent strategy for not just Afghanistan but the broader region, notably Pakistan and how it deals with terror groups, before he commits to adjustments.
But reports have suggested that other Trump advisers, including his influential strategy chief Steve Bannon, favor cutting American losses by pulling out or sending private military contractors to replace troops.
Military Times last week cited an Afghan government official as saying that Eric Prince, who was the former head of a controversial private military firm once known as Blackwater, had even offered to supply a private air force.
Meanwhile the situation in Afghanistan is as deadly as ever, with more than 2,500 Afghan police and troops killed in from Jan. 1 to May 8. U.S. forces—who are supposed to be in a non-combat role—are still dying too, with nine killed in action so far this year, including two in Kandahar on last week. The tally for 2017 is now the same as for all of 2016.