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Trump rules out Afghan troops withdrawal

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Media caption“We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists,” President Trump said

President Donald Trump has said a hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave a vacuum for terrorists to fill.

He said his original instinct was to pull US forces out, but had instead decided to stay and “fight to win” – avoiding the mistakes made in Iraq.

He said he wanted to shift from a time-based approach in Afghanistan to one based on conditions on the ground, adding he would not set out deadlines.

However, the US president warned it was not a “blank cheque” for Afghanistan.

“America will work with the Afghan government, so long as we see commitment and progress,” he said.

The Taliban responded by saying that Afghanistan would become “another graveyard” for the US if it did not withdraw its troops.

Mr Trump also warned Pakistan that the US would no longer tolerate the country offering “safe havens” to extremists, saying the country had “much to lose” if it did not side with the Americans.

“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars – at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” he said.

The accusation was quickly dismissed by a Pakistani army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor, who told reporters “there are no terrorist hideouts in Pakistan”.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump made it clear he expects his existing allies to support him in his new strategy, telling them he wanted them to raise their countries’ contributions “in line with our own”.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis indicated in a statement “several” US allies had already “committed to increasing their troop numbers”.

His UK counterpart, Sir Michael Fallon, said America’s commitment in Afghanistan was “very welcome”, adding: “We have to stay the course in Afghanistan to help build up its fragile democracy and reduce the terrorist threat to the West.”

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Media captionThe BBC is given rare access to see life under the Taliban

But Mr Trump refused to be drawn on how many extra US troops, if any, would be deployed. He had been expected to say another 4,000 would be sent to Afghanistan, the number General John Nicholson, the top US military commander in the country, requested.

Criticising previous administrations, he said: “We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans.”

However, Mr Trump said there would be an escalation in the battle against groups like al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State.

“[They] need to know they have nowhere to hide – that no place is beyond the reach of American arms,” he said.

Analysis: Damaging his base?

Aleem Maqbool, BBC North America correspondent, Washington

On paper, the Americans who could have the biggest problem with President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy are the very ones who voted for him.

They were told Donald Trump would focus on a policy of “America First”, but he now says he wants a win in Afghanistan to make all the sacrifice worthwhile.

In terms of how he is going to achieve that goal, he did not lay out specifics – once again saying he does not like to signpost strategy to America’s enemies.

But it is hard to know what a modest troop increase would achieve that the massive surge under President Barack Obama could not.

It is also unclear how he expects more co-operation from Pakistan while also asking India to play more of a role in Afghanistan – the very thing that alarms the Pakistani establishment.

General John Nicholson, the head of both US and international forces in Afghanistan, said the “new strategy means the Taliban cannot win militarily”.

Mr Trump had already indicated there could one day be a peace deal with the Taliban.

“Some day, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” he said.

“But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.”

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Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka, wife Melania and Vice-President Mike Pence watch the speech

But Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid dismissed Mr Trump’s strategy as “nothing new”, telling the AFP news agency that the US should think of an exit strategy “instead of continuing the war”.

US combat operations against the Taliban officially ended in 2014, more than 8,000 special forces continue to provide support to Afghan troops.

The Afghan government continues to battle insurgency groups and controls just half of the country.

Mr Trump has previously supported pulling troops out of the conflict, which began under President George W Bush in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.

“We’re not winning,” he told advisers in a meeting in July.

Top White House officials have also been divided about the best way forward on Afghanistan.

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