U.S. President Donald Trump made no decision on committing more U.S. troops to Afghanistan after reviewing options presented by his national security advisers on August 18, the White House said.
Trump's meeting with advisers at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland focused on developing "a new strategy to protect America's interests in South Asia," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters afterwards.
"The president is studying and considering his options and will make an announcement to the American people, to our allies and partners, and to the world at the appropriate time," Sanders said.
The administration has been beset by internal difference over what to do in Afghanistan. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and other military leaders back a modest increase of between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. troops from the current 8,400 level.
But "anti-globalists” at the White House, who were led by chief strategist Steve Bannon before he was pushed out on August 18, advocated withdrawing U.S. forces, officials said.
Bannon did not attend the meeting at Camp David, which was attended by Mattis, McMaster, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Other options which officials said were discussed included maintaining the current number of troops or even reducing that number by a small amount and adopting a new strategy focused on counterterrorism operations enhanced by drone strikes and intelligence-gathering.
The options of withdrawing or reducing troops might come as a surprise in Afghanistan, where Defense Secretary Jim Mattis earlier this year told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that the United States has a sustained commitment to the war-torn country.
Mattis seemed confident of winning the internal administration debate before the Camp David meeting, telling reporters in Washington on August 17 that "we are coming very close to a decision."
At meetings with advisers earlier this year, media reported that Trump voiced frustration at the stalemate in fighting with the Taliban despite 16 years of war effort -- something that U.S. intelligence agencies in May said might not change even with a small increase in U.S. troops.
Officials said the decision on what to do in Afghanistan has also been complicated by internal differences over whether the United States should take a harder line toward Pakistan for failing to shut down 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.
Reuters reported that under one proposal outlined by U.S. officials, 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.
Such a designation would trigger harsh U.S. sanctions, including a ban on arms sales and an end to U.S. economic assistance for Pakistan.
Officials said another option under consideration at the White House is a proposal by Erik Prince, the founder of the former Blackwater military contracting firm and the brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Prince wants to replace U.S. forces in Afghanistan with contractors who would be paid to train Afghan forces and help them fight the Taliban.
Prince has promoted his plan in media interviews, but officials said McMaster, Mattis, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and retired Marine General John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, oppose the idea.
Military and intelligence officials are concerned that a withdrawal or reduced presence of U.S. forces would enable the Taliban to win the current standoff and would allow Al-Qaeda and a regional affiliate of the Islamic State extremist group to use Afghanistan once again as a base for plotting attacks on the United States and its allies.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican and advocate of a stronger U.S. role in Afghanistan, is urging Trump to "listen to his generals. At the end of the day, Afghanistan is about American homeland security - not building empires."
Last week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain also came out in favor of a beefed up U.S presence in Afghanistan, expanding tje U.S. counterterrorism effort and providing greater support to Afghan security forces.
"We are losing in Afghanistan, and time is of the essence if we intend to turn the tide," McCain said.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters