More U.S. troops will deploy to Afghanistan "within days or weeks" in the effort to defeat the Taliban under a revised strategy authorized by President Donald Trump, Army Gen. Joseph Votel said Tuesday.
The first contingents of the additional forces, expected to number in the range of about 3,900 once they are fully deployed, will begin arriving "pretty quickly" and could be on the ground within days or weeks, said Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command.
"What's most important for us now is to get some capabilities in to have an impact on the current fighting season," he told reporters traveling with him to Saudi Arabia.
Over the weekend, Votel was in Afghanistan and Pakistan to brief authorities on the revised strategy outlined by Trump Monday night in an address to the nation from Fort Myer in Arlington, Va.
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In his speech, Trump declined to put a number on the additional forces deploying to Afghanistan to join about 8,500 now there on the ground, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made clear without giving specifics Tuesday that the number of troops would be boosted significantly.
"I'd prefer not to go into those numbers right now," Mattis said at a press conference in Baghdad, but "there is a number that I'm authorized to go up to" by Trump to battle the Taliban in the 16-year-old war effort.
Mattis said he had directed Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford to draw up a plan on the deployments. "We've obviously been discussing this option for some time," he said. "When he brings that to me, I'll determine how many more we need to send in."
Trump's pledge Monday night to keep and bolster a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely will translate into defeat for the Taliban, Army Gen. John Nicholson said Tuesday.
"This new strategy means the Taliban cannot win militarily," Nicholson, commander of U.S.Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission, said in a statement after Trump's address.
"Now is the time to renounce violence and reconcile," Nicholson said of the Taliban, whose spring and summer offensive has gained control of nearly half of Afghanistan's districts.
Nicholson, who reportedly was on the verge of being fired by Trump before Mattis intervened, said Trump's long-term commitment would ease the concerns of the Kabul government and the Afghan National Defense Security Forces that the U.S. was considering a complete withdrawal.
Before being elected, Trump had said in statements and Tweets that the war in Afghanistan was not worth the price in U.S. blood and treasure, and that the Afghans should be left on their own to battle the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria offshoot known as Islamic-State Khorasan province, or IS-K.
Trump's new resolve to keep U.S. forces on the ground with loosened rules of engagement sent a message to the Afghans "that our commitment is strong and enduring. Our future presence will be based on conditions and not arbitrary timelines," Nicholson said.
In a statement, Mattis, who was traveling to the Mideast and Ukraine this week and was in Iraq Tuesday, backed up Nicholson. The revised strategy, reached after drawn-out deliberations and reported feuds among White House advisors, was the logical conclusion following "a rigorous interagency review," he said.
"I have directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford) to make preparations to carry out the president's strategy," Mattis said.
"I will be in consultation with the Secretary General of NATO and our allies--several of which have also committed to increasing their troop numbers. Together, we will assist the Afghan Security forces to destroy the terrorist hub," Mattis said.
In a separate statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the U.S. resolve to continue the war indefinitely left an opening for the Taliban to join peace talks repeatedly offered by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was mistakenly identified by Trump in his speech as the "prime minister."
"We are making clear to the Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield," Tillerson said. "The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war."
Tillerson, who lacks a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and an ambassador to Kabul, added that "we stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions. We look to the international community, particularly Afghanistan's neighbors, to join us in supporting an Afghan peace process."
The Taliban immediately rejected the prospect of peace talks. In a defiant statement, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, said Trump's speech only demonstrated the arrogance of foreign powers who have tried and failed for centuries to impose their will on Afghanistan.
"It looks like America does not want to put an end to its longest war and instead of realizing the realities, it still is arrogant on its might and force," Mujahid said. As long as "one American soldier remains on our soil, we will continue our jihad against them," he said.
Afghanistan has long been called the "graveyard of empires," where the British, the Soviet Union and others were forced to retreat. "If the U.S. does not withdraw," Mujahid said,
"Afghanistan will become another graveyard for this superpower."
In Kabul, the official reaction to Trump's announcements and in particular his pledge to pressure Pakistan were greeted with satisfaction and relief that U.S. support would not be withdrawn.
Afghan President Ghani said he was "grateful to President Trump and the American people for this affirmation of support for our efforts to achieve self-reliance."
Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., Hamdullah Mohib, said the speech was "the first time a focus has been put on what Afghanistan must have to succeed," and a sign of strong commitment to "our shared goals."
However, Pakistan, which controls main lines of supply and communication to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, bristled at Trump's charge that Pakistan had failed to move against Taliban safe havens in the northwest FATA region, or Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
In his address Monday night, Trump said "Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror."
One of the "pillars" of his new strategy, Trump said, was "to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond."
"Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists," Trump said.
Pakistani officials also took offense at Trump's call for India, Pakistan's traditional enemy, to get more involved in Afghanistan.
In response to Trump, a Pakistani army spokesman said that Pakistan had taken action against all Islamist militants including the Haqqani network, which is allied to Afghan Taliban insurgents.
"There are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan. We have operated against all terrorists, including (the) Haqqani network," Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor told a media briefing in Islamabad.
"If the international community says we have not done enough, then it is a politicized narrative which includes many forces, including India,' he said.
Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan, the former star cricket player on the national team, charged that Trump was blaming Pakistan for its own "deeply flawed and failed Afghan policy stretching over a decade."
"We must also reject being made scapegoats for the policy failures of US and India," Khan said.
There was also the question of how much help Pakistan could offer amid an ongoing political crisis. Last month, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted by Pakistan's Supreme Court in a continuing money laundering and corruption scandal.
In addition to declining to say how many more U.S. troops would deploy to Afghanistan, Trump gave few details on other aspects of his strategy.
On loosening the rules of engagement, Trump only cited restrictions that have already been lifted to allow field commanders make tactical decisions without first getting approval from Washington.
"I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the Secretary of Defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy," Trump said.
"Micromanagement from Washington, D.C. does not win battles. They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and frontline soldiers acting in real time, with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy," Trump said.
Much of the speech and the outlines of the revised strategy represented a continuation of the policies of former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush rather than a radical departure, according to a paper from the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
"In terms of integrating all instruments of American power -- again without specifics -- it is difficult to know how this differs from the current strategy," said the analysis by Col. Liam Collins, director of the Institute, and John Amble, the Institute's editorial director.
"Previous administrations have also found it challenging to produce integrated strategies for many of our security challenges -- Afghanistan among them," Collins and Amble said.
"The president's emphasis on both the carrot and the stick notwithstanding, fighting Taliban combatants on the battlefield while holding open the door for negotiations with the group's leadership is in itself not new," they said.
In response to Trump's speech, Andrew Wilder, Vice President of Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said his overall reaction was positive in that Trump had lifted a "long period of ambiguity" on his intentions for Afghanistan. "It's really good to have reassurance that the U.S. isn't abandoning Afghanistan," he said.
In a conference call, Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at USIP, noted a potential inconsistency in Trump's strategy on the ends and means of his stated objectives.
According to Trump, "our goal is not to send our forces over to fight for building democracy" or to engage in nation building, Worden said, but "a stable government (in Kabul) is an essential component" to an eventual peace process.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.