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Trump Prepares For Address On Path Forward In Afghanistan


President Trump addresses the nation tonight. The White House is billing it as the path forward for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and South Asia. The 16-year-long conflict in Afghanistan is America's longest war. The president said Saturday in a statement posted online that he has made up his mind about the future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan. That was after meeting with military leaders at Camp David late last week.

Geoff Bennett covers the White House for NPR and joins us now. And Geoff, the White House says President Trump will deliver his message directly to the armed forces at Fort Myer, the base right next to Arlington National Cemetery. What's he expected to say?

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Well, senior U.S. officials tell NPR the president is expected to order about 4,000 additional Army troops to Afghanistan. So that would be a roughly 45 percent increase in U.S. troops from the current number, which stands at about 8,400. And by way of comparison, at the height of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, there were roughly 100,000 American service members deployed there.

And so beyond the military commitment, the president is also expected to announce a new focus on forcing Afghanistan's neighbors to do more to fight extremists, especially Pakistan, which of course plays a critical role in the region. And so the overall strategy is aimed at pushing back the Taliban, which in recent years has gained more ground, and of course battling the Islamic State group, or ISIS.

SIEGEL: Donald Trump is on the record as having been skeptical of devoting more resources to the Afghan conflict. What has he said in the past, actually?

BENNETT: Well, there are at least a dozen tweets dating back to 2011 which President - or now President Trump criticized the war. He called it a waste of money. He said former President Obama should have pulled U.S. troops. He even wondered whether the war should have been fought in the first place. So you know, those were his comments as a private citizen and then later as a presidential candidate. But now as president, his primary concern, as we understand it, is that the absence of U.S. troops in the region could leave a vacuum that could be exploited by terror groups.

SIEGEL: How might Trump's plan for Afghanistan be greeted in Congress?

BENNETT: Well, it'll certainly satisfy Republican hawks like Senator John McCain, who had criticized the Trump administration for dragging its feet and having, as he put it, no strategy for achieving victory there. But I'll tell you. There are Democrats and even some Republicans who will say that the president's chosen strategy as we understand it isn't all that different from what was attempted over the last several years of the Obama administration and that the U.S. can't realistically expect a different outcome by taking the existing approach and tweaking it at the margins.

There is a sense among congressional lawmakers, I'd say, even before word came of the president's announcement about a new strategy that no matter what the approach, there is a long slog that still lies ahead. And there's real - no real end in sight to what, as you noted earlier, is America's longest war.

SIEGEL: This speech by President Trump comes at a time when some members of his own party have publicly questioned his moral authority, his competence. One senator questioned his stability following his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va. Do you think that complicates the politics here?

BENNETT: Well, certainly. I mean I think it's impossible to separate the president's speech tonight from the events of the past week even if that's what the White House is attempting to do with the scheduling of it. I think the president is more polarizing. He's in some ways more isolated than ever before in the sense that CEOs have distanced themselves from him, as did some key Republicans who you mentioned, you know, also questioned his fitness for office. And that's all having to do with the way he handled the aftermath of violence at that white supremacist protests in Charlottesville.

And so he has to also navigate the demands and the expectations of his own base of supporters given the ouster of Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist who advocated against sending more troops to Afghanistan. And Bannon was the link to Trump's core of, you know, nationalist supporters. Whatever the president says tonight could be undermined tomorrow because he's scheduled to hold a major political rally in Phoenix tomorrow night. And those rallies tend to be freewheeling, a little raucous at times. And that's the scene there could blunt the message he wants to convey in trying to rally the country around extending the war in Afghanistan.

SIEGEL: NPR White House correspondent Geoff Bennett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Bennett is a White House reporter for NPR. He previously covered Capitol Hill and national politics for NY1 News in New York City and more than a dozen other Time Warner-owned cable news stations across the country. Prior to that role, he was an editor with NPR's Weekend Edition. Geoff regularly guest hosts C-SPAN's Washington Journal — a live, three-hour news and public affairs program. He began his journalism career at ABC News in New York after graduating from Morehouse College.