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With No Timetable for Withdrawal, Trump Expands War in Afghanistan While Threatening Pakistan

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On Monday night, President Trump announced that the U.S. would continue the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which is already the longest war in U.S. history. The Pentagon is likely to deploy about 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the coming months. This summer, the U.S. already began intensifying its air war in Afghanistan. During the month of June, the U.S. carried out 389 airstrikes in Afghanistan—the highest monthly total in five years. For more, we speak with award-winning journalist Azmat Khan, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring Azmat Khan into the conversation. You’ve done an investigative piece on the situation in Afghanistan. Hearing President Trump last night, it’s clear that this war will not end in his term in office. And your sense of what that means for Afghanistan right now?

AZMAT KHAN: Well, he repeated a refrain we’ve heard time and again about both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was this. It was this idea that because the U.S. withdrew hastily, in his view, that the Taliban was able to gain power, that ISIS was able to gain power. Right now the Taliban controls 40 percent—it either controls or retains significant influence in 40 percent of the country. But to attribute that to a hasty withdrawal is something that’s been done in the past and hasn’t actually added up. So, if you think back to Obama’s troop surge back in 2010, to Afghanistan specifically, what was often said was that putting troops in Iraq rather than Afghanistan was the reason why the Taliban was able to take power. So they committed more than 100,000 troops to the country. And you’re essentially hearing the exact same argument you heard then: “We need more troops. We can’t withdraw too hastily.” You’re seeing the exact same arguments being made again. And so, the question now is: What’s different? What’s different is this time there’s no timetable for withdrawal—what President Trump justified as not wanting to broadcast what America’s intentions are. There is also no delineation of the exact number of troops, at least not in his speech last night.

The third difference is what seems to be a perceived shift in the approach towards Pakistan. And it’s interesting here because we’ve been talking about how generals have really played a role in this policy, but there is a civilian component. There’s certainly a National Security Council component that I see in the policy he articulated last night. And that’s specifically his deputy assistant, the director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, Lisa Curtis, who has advocated continuously for a shift in the approach to Pakistan. And you saw some of that last night. Now, he didn’t get specific, but if you go back through papers that Lisa Curtis has published, you’ll see some of the options that are on the table and that seemed to be articulated last night, if not specifically, but alluded to. And these include things such as airstrikes in Pakistan, expanding them, possibly even issuing—continuing airstrikes, for example, in other parts of Pakistan that have not traditionally been hit by airstrikes, so, for example, going after the Quetta Shura, having airstrikes in this area of Balochistan, an area that has really only had one airstrike by the United States, which was killing the former head of the Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mansour.

So, there are some differences when it comes to Pakistan, potential differences, but, more or less, this is the same argument we’ve heard time and again. There really is no advocacy for a political settlement, what was the one way to possibly get to some kind of a solution that didn’t involve military force, given the fact that if you look at this history, this surge of troops has not yielded the result that it was—that was anticipated back when the surge happened in 2010. In fact, the Taliban today is stronger than it was back then.

AMY GOODMAN: Azmat, how much of last night do you think was motivated by Charlottesville? While he never talked about Charlottesville, clearly, his worst week ever, after President Trump has a terrible week, usually there is a foreign enemy that you locate to distract attention. You know, this is the dead of August. It was the day of the eclipse, as well. And it made me think back to George W. Bush, when it was asked why they weren’t pushing for more war with Iraq right before the Iraq War in the summer. His chief of staff, Andrew Card, GM executive, said, famously, “You don’t roll out a new product in August.” Well, this is August. And yet, he clearly needed to distract attention to the catastrophe of last week, to his fundamentally saying that in Charlottesville the people were legal who were the white—the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, they were a permitted rally, and the violence was on both sides, and the massive condemnation he got, including from, across the board, his generals.

AZMAT KHAN: It’s telling that nobody was expecting this at this time, and that’s one indicator. Another indicator is the fact that he deviated from the way he’d normally deliver his speeches. He stuck to his script. He read off a teleprompter. That tells you that this was an effort to shift from his traditional ways of communicating with the American public, that he was giving in to possible advisers and others who have told him, “Listen, we need you to sound more presidential.” Because it was a deviation from the norm. I can’t speculate as to how specific it was that this Afghanistan articulation was specifically that, but there are definitely indicators that suggest that’s what happened here. August is a dead month. You’re absolutely right.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it at that now. We’ll see what happens tonight when President Trump heads to Phoenix. Who knows? Maybe he’ll read from a teleprompter. But this is supposed to be a kind of campaign-style rally at the Phoenix Convention Center, with massive protest expected outside, and—who knows?—maybe inside. And we’ll see whether he also pardons the former Sheriff Arpaio. Azmat Khan, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning investigative journalist, Future of War fellow at New America. She has reported extensively from Afghanistan. Her 2015 investigation into U.S.-funded schools in Afghanistan was headlined “Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools.” And, Matthew Hoh, thanks for joining us, senior fellow with the Center for International Policy; 2009, resigned from the State Department in protest of the Obama escalation of the war in Afghanistan; prior to that, he served in Iraq and Afghanistan, including time as a Marine Corps company commander in Anbar province in Iraq.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the man Steve Bannon called just before he was ousted. We’ll speak with Bob Kuttner of The American Prospect. Stay with us.

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