WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump huddles with his national security team on Friday to try to agree on a strategy for Afghanistan which includes options ranging from a pullout or reduction of U.S. forces to a modest troop increase.
It was unclear if the meeting at Camp David, in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, would overcome internal divisions. Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and some military commanders favor a troop hike, while “anti-globalists” led by White House chief strategist Steven Bannon and allies back withdrawing U.S. forces, U.S. officials said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday appeared to play down expectations Trump would make a final decision.
“We will move this toward a decision,” Mattis said during a news conference with Japanese ministers. “We are coming very close to a decision and I anticipate it in the very near future.”
U.S. officials told Reuters options being presented to Trump on Friday range from a total pullout from Afghanistan, keeping the status quo of some 8,400 U.S. troops, a modest hike, or a small reduction that would focus on counter-terrorism operations enhanced by drone strikes and intelligence-gathering, they said.
Most top aides backed the third choice at a mid-July meeting. Under this plan, about 3,000 to 5,000 additional U.S. and coalition soldiers would be sent and U.S. troops could embed with Afghan forces at the brigade level, they said.
More than 15 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Islamist Taliban government, there is no sign to an end in fighting.
U.S. intelligence agencies assessed in May that the conditions in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through next year, even with a modest increase in military assistance from America and its allies.
The Camp David discussions have also been complicated by differences over taking a harder line on Pakistan for failing to close Afghan Taliban sanctuaries and arrest Afghan extremist leaders. U.S. officials say the Afghan Taliban are supported by elements of Pakistan’s military and top intelligence agency, a charge Islamabad denies.
Under one proposal, the United States would begin a review of whether to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism unless it pursues senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban and the allied Haqqani network, considered the most lethal Afghan extremist group, U.S. officials said.
Such a designation would trigger harsh U.S. sanctions, including a ban on arms sales and an end to U.S. economic assistance.
Finalizing a regional security strategy has been held up by Trump’s frustration with a lack of options for defeating the Taliban and ending the longest foreign conflict in U.S. history.
At the meeting in mid-July, Trump said Mattis and Marine General James Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, should consider firing Army General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for not winning the war.
The delay for a decision left an opening for Eric Prince, the founder of the former Blackwater military contracting firm and the brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to propose replacing U.S. forces in Afghanistan with mercenaries.
The plan made its way into the White House, according to a senior administration official.
There is no indication, however, that the proposal – promoted by Prince in media interviews – garnered serious attention and it was not among the options prepared for consideration at Camp David, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
McMaster, Mattis, Dunford and retired Marine General John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, are opposed to this plan, according to U.S. officials.
Even so, supporters at Friday’s meeting could bring the idea up.
With Afghan security forces struggling to prevent Taliban advances and the country’s political leadership all but paralyzed by infighting, Nicholson in February requested thousands of additional U.S. troops to bolster U.S. military trainers, advisers and special forces.
U.S. military and intelligence officials are concerned that a Taliban victory would allow al Qaeda and Islamic State’s regional affiliate to establish bases in Afghanistan from which to plot attacks against the United States and its allies.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Bridgewater, New Jersey and Idrees Ali and John Walcott in Washington; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Bell