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Trump to address U.S. on Afghanistan plans

AMMAN, Jordan — President Donald Trump, who has been accused by lawmakers of dragging his feet on Afghanistan, has settled on a new strategy to carry on the nearly 16-year-old conflict there, administration officials said Sunday. The move, following a detailed review, is likely to open the door to the deployment of several thousand troops.

The White House said in a statement that Trump will address the nation and U.S. troops "on a path forward for America's engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia" in a speech at 9 tonight at Fort Myer, Va.

"The president has made a decision," Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on an overnight flight that arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday. "I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous."

Mattis declined to say what steps the president had ordered, including on troop levels, saying that the president wanted to outline the new approach himself.

The defense secretary received the authority in June to send as many as 3,900 troops to Afghanistan so that the U.S. military could expand its efforts to advise Afghan forces and support them with U.S. artillery and air power. But Mattis has refrained from building up the U.S. force there until the Trump administration agreed on a broader strategy.

U.S. military commanders have argued during the monthslong policy assessment that the additional troops would enable the U.S. to reverse gains made by the Taliban and militant groups like the Islamic State's Afghan affiliate, the Islamic State in Khorasan.

Administration aides, under orders to let Trump announce the details, hinted that any U.S. commitment to increase force levels would require steps by the Afghans, like doing more to fight corruption.

Trump's speech tonight will be his first nationally televised prime-time address since he spoke before Congress in January and follows a week of controversy over his reaction to the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va.

When it comes to Afghanistan, Trump entered office as the skeptic in chief, and any ramped-up engagement there poses political risks for the president, who rallied voters weary of war with his sharp criticisms of U.S. involvement in the country.

"We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money — rebuild the U.S.!" Trump tweeted about Afghanistan in January 2013, as he considered running for office in 2016.

The Afghanistan question has been the source of a long-running debate at the White House. Stephen K. Bannon, who was recently removed as a top Trump adviser, fought the military's recommendation for more troops and backed a number of alternative options — including using private contractors instead of U.S. forces.

The decision on troops is just one component of a military and political plan for the region that Trump and his aides have been discussing for months, and it is politically important for the president to differentiate his approach from the Obama-era policies he sharply criticized.

Administration officials have been developing ways to try to pressure Pakistan to shut down the sanctuaries there for the Taliban, a goal Republican and Democratic administrations have pursued for years with little success.

A major concern is the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe is responsible for some devastating attacks in and around Kabul. Funding for Pakistan, including contributions for Pakistani troops deployed near the border with Afghanistan, may be held up to more scrutiny than it is now, according to Pentagon and congressional officials.

Trump administration officials have also worked to lock in troop commitments from NATO and other Western nations, an important consideration for a president who has demanded that allies shoulder part of the burden.

Trump administration officials say they know they will need to reassure the American public that U.S. military involvement in the nearly 16-year-old conflict will not be open-ended and will help combat international terrorism.

Moreover, many officials believe they need to do so without setting firm deadlines for reducing or withdrawing U.S. troops, a practice President Barack Obama embraced but which Trump officials assert denied the military needed flexibility and played into the hands of the United States' adversaries.

One way to address that concern, administration officials have said in recent weeks, might be to stipulate that the Afghans would need to satisfy certain conditions, like fighting corruption or improving governance, to continue to receive U.S. economic and military support.

An estimated 8,400 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan, most assigned to an approximately 13,000-strong international force that is training and advising the Afghan military. About 2,000 U.S. troops are tasked with carrying out counterterrorism missions along with Afghan forces against militant groups like the Islamic State's affiliate.