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About 4,000 more US troops to go to Afghanistan

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Written by Maritime First
  • Trump Seeks Limited Changes to Obama Cuba Policy
  • As Vice-President Pence hires lawyer over Trump- Russia inquiry

The Pentagon will send almost 4,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan, a Trump administration official said Thursday, hoping to break a stalemate in a war that has now passed to a third U.S. commander in chief. The deployment will be the largest of American manpower under Donald Trump’s young presidency.

The decision by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis could be announced as early as next week, the official said. It follows Trump’s move to give Mattis the authority to set troop levels and seeks to address assertions by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan that he doesn’t have enough forces to help Afghanistan’s army against a resurgent Taliban insurgency. The rising threat posed by Islamic State extremists, evidenced in a rash of deadly attacks in the capital city of Kabul, has only fueled calls for a stronger U.S. presence, as have several recent American combat deaths.

The bulk of the additional troops will train and advise Afghan forces, according to the administration official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss details of the decision publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. A smaller number would be assigned to counterterror operations against the Taliban and IS, the official said.

Although Trump has delegated authority for U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan, the responsibility for America’s wars and the men and women who fight in them rests on his shoulders. Trump has inherited America’s longest conflict with no clear endpoint or a defined strategy for American success, though U.S. troop levels are far lower than they were under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. In 2009, Obama authorized a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, bringing the total there to more than 100,000, before drawing down over the rest of his presidency.

Trump has barely spoken about Afghanistan as a candidate or president, concentrating instead on crushing the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. His predecessors both had hoped to win the war. Bush scored a quick success, helping allied militant groups oust the Taliban shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, before seeing the gains slip away as American focus shifted to the Iraq war. In refocusing attention on Afghanistan, Obama eliminated much of the country’s al-Qaida network and authorized the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, but failed to snuff out the Taliban’s rebellion.

Mattis’ deployment of more troops will be far smaller than Obama’s.

While military leaders have consistently said more forces are needed, a decision had been tied up in a lengthy, wider debate about America’s long-term military, diplomatic and economic strategy for ending the war. Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander there, has said the troops are necessary to properly train and advise the Afghan military and perform work handled at greater cost by contractors. Afghan leaders endorse the idea of more U.S. troops, having lost significant ground to the Taliban in recent months.

But despite repeated questions from Congress this week, Mattis wouldn’t reveal his thinking on a troop increase. He said that while counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan are making progress in weakening al-Qaida and IS, “their defeat will come about only by giving our men and women on the ground the support and the authorities they need to win.”

Obama set a cap a year ago of 8,400 troops in Afghanistan after slowing the pace of what he hoped would be a U.S. withdrawal.

In the meantime,  President Donald Trump will reshape the United States’ Cuba policy with a speech in Miami on Friday, re-instituting some travel restrictions to the island and seeking to block business with the country’s military.

The move marks yet another departure from a signature policy of the Obama administration, which ended a decades-long freeze of diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2014.

The president’s policy change seeks to restrict the flow of money to “oppressive elements of the Cuba regime” by ending individual people-to people-travel designations, a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday.

Eliminating that category — in which individuals can travel to Cuba alone and not as part of an organized tour group, which has the “highest risk of potential abuse,” an official said — still leaves 11 other categories under which Americans can visit Cuba legally.

Florida was a key state in Trump’s stunning Electoral College victory in 2016, and the Cuban-American community is politically influential in the state.

Trump will also direct the secretaries of treasury and commerce to provide regulations that prohibit direct financial transactions with Cuban military intelligence and security services.

While some hotels will be encompassed by those restrictions, there will be exemptions — among them lodging options such as Airbnb, according to senior White House officials.

The overall goal of the policy changes, officials said, is to “steer money away from the Cuban military and toward the Cuban people.”

Flights and cruise ships from the United States will not be restricted.

Trump’s new directives do not reinstitute the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that was ended by former President Barack Obama before leaving office earlier this year. The “wet foot, dry foot” policy had allowed Cubans who arrived in the United States the ability to become permanent residents.

The policy changes also do not seek to close off diplomatic ties, shutter the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana, or limit what Americans can bring back from Cuba, including cigars and rum.

Senior administration officials said the impetus for the changes was born from a campaign promise and the concern that the Obama-era policies were contributing to the oppression on the island.

Both Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, were vocal during the 2016 campaign about plans to “reverse” the Obama administration’s policies toward Cuba, which Trump referred to as a bad deal.

In another development, Vice-President Mike Pence has hired an outside lawyer to handle his response to inquiries into possible ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Richard Cullen is known for representing high profile clients.

Earlier, US media reported that Donald Trump was being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller for possible obstruction of justice.

Mr Mueller is leading an FBI inquiry into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Reports in US media said senior intelligence officials would be interviewed on whether Mr Trump tried to end an inquiry into his sacked National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and about the firing of FBI chief James Comey.

Mr Trump – who has repeatedly denied any collusion with Russia – said the move was the latest action in a “phony story”.

“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history – led by some very bad and conflicted people!” the US president tweeted.

Mr Pence’s office announced the decision to hire Mr Cullen on Thursday. It said the vice-president had earlier interviewed several candidates.

“The vice president is focused entirely on his duties and promoting the president’s agenda and looks forward to a swift conclusion of this matter,” Mr Pence’s spokesman Jarrod Agen said.

Mr Cullen is the chairman of McGuireWoods LLP law firm.

He represented high profile clients such as former US congressman Tom DeLay and Elin Nordegren, ex-wife of golfer Tiger Woods.

He was also involved into the Iran-Contra and the Watergate investigations.

Last month, President Trump hired his own lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, to handle Russia-related investigations by the FBI and US congressional committees.

MSN with additional report from NBC and BBC

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Maritime First