Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: August 21, 2017 Guest: Andrew Exum, Phil Carter
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thanks for joining us for our special coverage tonight of the president`s primetime address. We know you have basically infinite choices of where to watch a presidential address on a night like this. So, thank you for choosing to be here with us tonight.
The president tonight will be speaking from Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. That`s the Army post that is immediately adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery. It`s very, very close to downtown Washington, D.C. It`s basically immediately across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial.
You can see the room there to night. The president expected to be at that podium within about five minutes or so. Most of the cabinet is there tonight. Interestingly, the secretary of defense is not there tonight. But you see all those uniformed military personnel in the audience.
If this were a more predictable presidency, the White House announcing a rare presidential primetime address on the same day that the whole country came together to watch a stunning solar eclipse. You might expect that the topic of that presidential address would be designed to capitalize on what happened today, the whole country all being warm-hearted about space and science. Everybody wowed about the mysteries of the universe.
In a more predictable presidency, you could imagine tonight being the presidential address that announced a manned mission to Mars, or a back to future plan to return to the moon or something. That is not somewhat we`re in store for tonight.
We`re been told to expect an announcement from the president on his strategy for the war in Afghanistan. That war begun almost immediately after al Qaeda attacked the U.S. on 9/11. The war has not stopped since. It`s the longest war in U.S. history.
U.S. troop numbers have fluctuated in Afghanistan from as high as 100,000 troops in President Obama`s first term, down to fewer than 9,000 troops there today.
Five years ago tonight, in 2012, the man who is now president was clear as a bell as to what he thought should happen with the Afghanistan war. Quote: Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home.
That was exactly five years ago tonight, August 21st 2012 from Donald Trump. But that was not a new sentiment from him at the time. He`d already been preaching that same thing for a very long time by then. In 2011, when American troop strength was at its highest in Afghanistan, he was calling the Afghan war a waste of trillions of dollars, demanding, quote: When will we stop wasting our money on Afghanistan.
As a president and as a politician, Donald Trump has been accused of inconsistency and at times inattention on some important policy matters. But he has been consistent and insistent over appear idea of many years now when it comes to this war. It is time to get out of Afghanistan. It is not in your national interest, he said in 2012.
Time to get out. Time to get out of there. Get out now. We should have a speedy withdrawal. Why should we keep wasting our money?
Even when he gets some of the nouns wrong, like calling the Afghan people Afghanis, which is the equivalent of calling the American`s dollars. Even when he gets some stuff screwed up, his point has been clear as day from the beginning and invariable.
Quote: Let`s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions of dollars there. Nonsense.
We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Let`s get out. We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives.
This is the way that Donald Trump has talked about Afghanistan for years now in public life. And for politicians, rhetoric about wasted lives while Americans are still fighting and dying overseas, that would usually be considered thin rhetorical ice for any politician. But Trump has been emphatic on this subject, even to the point of using language like that.
Before he became president at least, he really had only one consistent message on the Afghanistan War, end it. End it now. End it yesterday. It is a total waste.
Since he has been president, though, we really have no idea if that idea still holds for him. The only change in course we have seen since he`s been in office was in the second week in April when U.S. forces for the second time ever dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in the world. We still don`t know why. Stated reason was that that bomb, that $16 million mother of all bombs was necessary to blow up a complex of deep caves in that part of Afghanistan.
Our military does have penetrating bombs that are designed for underground targets, but that giant bomb they dropped in April is not one of those bombs. Aside from that puzzling incident back in April when they dropped that gigantic bomb, the new administration`s take on this war has been a little bit of a mystery.
The president has recently apparently considered a radical plan to take the U.S. military out of Afghanistan all together and instead pay $10 billion a year to the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos so he could run the war in Afghanistan as a private for-profit affair. That Friday strategy session at Camp David that led to tonight`s speech was reportedly due to include an in-person presentation from Erik Prince on this privatization plan. Prince has reportedly scrapped from the agenda and barred from the meeting, only once White House senior strategist Bannon was fired on Friday.
That said, take with a big grain of salt any reporting that tells you the private for-profit war plan is dead now or anybody who tells you that there`s a clear view of what the president might do exactly. His years of past statements on this issue are clear and consistent. They would make you think he`s about to announce the end of war tonight. That said, the best sourced reporting we`ve got tonight tells us he`s about to announce that he`s going to add more troops.
And then there`s the wild card factor with this president, that gigantic bomb this spring, apparently unconnected to any larger policy or strategic aim, the privatization plan they`re considering, the timing of doing this speech tonight.
We`re told to expect that the president will make a decision about his strategy in Afghanistan tonight. We don`t know exactly what he`ll say. We`ve got no advance excerpts. Here he comes.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Tillerson, members of the cabinet, General Dunford, Deputy Secretary Shanahan, and Colonel Duggan, most especially, thank you to the men and women of Fort Myer and every member of the United States military, at home and abroad.
We send our thoughts and prayers to the families of our brave sailors who were injured and lost after a tragic collision at sea, as well as to those conducting the search-and-recovery efforts.
I am here tonight to lay out our path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia.
But before I provide the details of our new strategy, I want to say a few words to the servicemembers here with us tonight, to those watching from their posts, and to all Americans listening at home.
Since the founding of our republic, our country has produced a special class of heroes whose selflessness, courage, and resolve is unmatched in human history. American patriots from every generation have given their last breath on the battlefield for our nation and for our freedom.
Through their lives, and though their lives were cut short, in their deeds they achieved total immortality. By following the heroic example of those who fought to preserve our republic, we can find the inspiration our country needs to unify, to heal, and to remain one nation, under God.
The men and women of our military operate as one team, with one shared mission and one shared sense of purpose. They transcend every line of race, ethnicity, creed, and color to serve together and sacrifice together in absolutely perfect cohesion. That is because all servicemembers are brothers and sisters. They`re all part of the same family. It`s called the American family. They take the same oath, fight for the same flag, and live according to the same law. They`re bound together by common purpose, mutual trust, and selfless devotion to our nation and to each other.
The soldier understands what we as a nation too often forget, that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together. Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people.
When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate. The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home. We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.
As we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas -- and we will always win -- let us find the courage to heal our divisions within. Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name, that when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.
Thanks to the vigilance and skill of the American military, and of our many allies throughout the world, horrors on the scale of September 11th -- and nobody can ever forget that -- have not been repeated on our shores.
And we must acknowledge the reality I`m here to talk about tonight, that nearly 16 years after September 11th attacks, after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, 17 years.
I share the American people`s frustration. I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money -- and most importantly, lives -- trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations.
That is why shortly after my inauguration, I directed Secretary of Defense Mattis and my national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of all strategic options in Afghanistan and South Asia. My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts.
But all my life I`ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you`re president of the United States. So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle. After many meetings, over many months, we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David with my cabinet and generals to complete our strategy.
I arrived at three fundamental conclusion about America`s core interests in Afghanistan. First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.
Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists.
A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaida, would instantly fill just as happened before September 11th. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. Our soldiers watched as cities they had fought for and bled to liberate, and won, were occupied by a terrorist group called ISIS. The vacuum we created by leaving too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks. We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.
Third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.- designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.
For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror. The threat is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict. And that could happen.
No one denies that we have inherited a challenging and troubling situation in Afghanistan and South Asia. But we do not have the luxury of going back in time and making different or better decisions. When I became president, I was given a bad and very complex hand. But I fully knew what I was getting into, big and intricate problems.
But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I`m a problem- solver. And in the end, we will win.
We must address the reality of the world as it exists right now, and the threats we face and the confronting of all of the problems of today, and extremely predictable consequences of a hasty withdrawal. We need look no further than last week`s vile, vicious attack in Barcelona to understand that terror groups will stop at nothing to commit the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children. You saw it for yourself. Horrible.
As I outlined in my speech in Saudi Arabia three months ago, America and our partners are committed to stripping terrorists of their territory, cutting off their funding, and exposing the false allure of their evil ideology. Terrorists who slaughter innocent people will find no glory in this life or the next. They are nothing but thugs and criminals and predators and -- that`s right -- losers.
Working alongside our allies, we will break their will, dry up their recruitment, keep them from crossing our borders, and, yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America`s interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America. And we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world, for that matter.
But to prosecute this war, we will learn from history. As a result of our comprehensive review, American strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia will change dramatically in the following ways.
A core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time- based approach to one based on conditions. I`ve said it many times how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin or end military options.
We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America`s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.
I will not say when we are going to attack, but attack we will.
Another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power -- diplomatic, economic, and military -toward a successful outcome. Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.
America will continue its support for the Afghan government and the Afghan military as they confront the Taliban in the field. Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.
The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan`s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.
Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists. In the past, Pakistan has been a valued partner. Our militaries have worked together against common enemies. The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism. We recognize those contributions and those sacrifices.
But Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.
But that will have to change. And that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country`s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. servicemembers and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.
Another critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India, the world`s largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States. We appreciate India`s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. We are committed to pursuing our shared objectives for peace and security in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.
Finally, my administration will ensure that you, the brave defenders of the American people, will have the necessary tools and rules of engagement to make this strategy work, and work effectively, and work quickly.
I have already lifted restrictions the previous administration placed on our warfighters that prevented the secretary of defense and our commanders in the field from fully and swiftly waging battle against the enemy.
Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles. They`re won in the field, drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders, and front-line soldiers, acting in real-time with real authority, and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy.
That`s why we will also expand authority for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan. These killers need to know they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful, as we lift restrictions and expand authorities in the field. We`re already seeing dramatic results in the campaign to defeat ISIS, including the liberation of Mosul in Iraq.
Since my inauguration, we have achieved record-breaking success in that regard. We will also maximize sanctions and other financial and law enforcement actions against these networks to eliminate their ability to export terror. When America commits its warriors to battle, we must ensure they have every weapon to apply swift, decisive, and overwhelming force.
Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.
We will ask our NATO allies and global partners to support our new strategy, with additional troop and funding increases in line with our own. We are confident they will.
Since taking office, I have made clear that our allies and partners must contribute much more money to our collective defense. And they have done so.
In this struggle, the heaviest burden will continue to be borne by the good people of Afghanistan and their courageous armed forces. As the prime minister of Afghanistan has promised, we are going to participate in economic development to help defray the cost of this war to us.
Afghanistan is fighting to defend and secure their country against the same enemies who threaten us. The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do. Afghans will secure and build their own nation and define their own future. We want them to succeed.
But we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over. Instead, we will work with allies and partners to protect our shared interests.
We are not asking others to change their way of life, but to pursue common goals that allow our children to live better and safer lives. This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward. Military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan or stop the terrorist threat arising in that country. But strategically applied force aims to create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.
America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political, and economic burden.
The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress, and real results. Our patience is not unlimited. We will keep our eyes open. In abiding by the oath I took on January 20th, I will remain steadfast in protecting American lives and American interests.
In this effort, we will make common cause with any nation that chooses to stand and fight alongside us against this global threat. Terrorists take heed: America will never let up until you are dealt a lasting defeat.
Under my administration, many billions of dollars more is being spent on our military, and this includes vast amounts being spent on our nuclear arsenal and missile defense. In every generation, we have faced down evil, and we have always prevailed. We prevailed because we know who we are and what we are fighting for.
Not far from where we are gathered tonight, hundreds of thousands of America`s greatest patriots lay in eternal rest at Arlington National Cemetery. There`s more courage, sacrifice, and love in those hallowed grounds than at any other spot on the face of the Earth.
Many of those who have fought and died in Afghanistan enlisted in the months after September 11, 2001. They volunteered for a simple reason: They loved America, and they were determined to protect her.
Now we must secure the cause for which they gave their lives. We must unite to defend America from its enemies abroad. We must restore the bonds of loyalty among our citizens at home. And we must achieve an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the enormous price that so many have paid.
Our actions, and in months to come, all of them will honor the sacrifice of every fallen hero, every family who lost a loved one, and every wounded warrior who shed their blood in defense of our great nation.
With our resolve, we will ensure that your service and that your families will bring about the defeat of our enemies and the arrival of peace. We will push onward to victory with power in our hearts, courage in our souls, and everlasting pride in each and every one of you.
Thank you. May God bless our military, and may God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much. Thank you.
MADDOW: President Trump wrapping up remarks at Fort Myer, in Arlington, Virginia, tonight, speaking before an audience that includes, as you see, many uniformed military personnel. They were silent during his entry into the hall and throughout his speech. They now stand and applaud.
The president was also speaking before an audience of his cabinet. Most of the members of his cabinet were in attendance tonight as well as key advisers like Kellyanne Conway, I think that`s the vice president there on the right side of your screen now stepping forward.
There have not been very many presidents in history who have taken office while major wars were under way. FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, died in office before the end of World War II. So, when Truman started his presidency, that was the waning months, that was the end of World War II.
The next time that happened was Eisenhower. He started his first term in the last few months of what turned out to be the Korean War.
After that, it was Nixon. He was sworn in when the nation was already embroiled in the Vietnam conflict. He had famously a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, which turned to be not that.
After that, it was Barack Obama taking office as the wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pledged to wind them both down, and had difficulty doing so.
Donald Trump became only really the fifth president in U.S. history after those other four to ever take office while other major wars were already under way. And the Afghanistan war that he was speaking about tonight is America`s longest war. It will hit its 17th birthday this fall.
But it is a peculiar challenge for a president to not just to wind down an ongoing were war but to wind down an ongoing war that he played to role in starting. And with this president, there`s a particular challenge because of his year`s long record -- you see some of the members of the cabinet filling out there -- years long record of being blunt and unequivocal in calling the Afghanistan War a waste of American life and of American treasure. He`s been absolutely clear and consistent on that point for years, going back all the way to 2010 and 2011.
Tonight, the president in his remarks saying that he shares America`s frustration with the length of the war. He said his original instinct was to pull out, but he now wanted to spend this evening talking about what he views as the unacceptable consequences of withdrawal. He drew as a parallel, as an analogy the Iraq war, calling President Obama`s decision to wind down the Iraq War, at least for a time, he called that a hasty decision and a mistaken decision. It should be noted that when President Obama made that decision, Donald Trump then a private citizen, not only supported President Obama`s decision to end the Iraq war when he did, but he said that President Obama should have ended it years earlier.
CNBC in August 2011, Trump was asked about the decision to end the war in Iraq and he said, well, I think he could have gotten out along time ago. That said tonight, President Trump describing that decision to withdraw from Iraq as hasty and mistaken, saying he`s not going to make that mistake in Afghanistan.
Substantively, there`s a couple of things here that I think are worth just putting in context. The president described the major change in policy here as being that the United States would no longer have a time based approach to getting out of Afghanistan. What that means is there`s no end date for the war. He`s criticizing President Obama for having set a time, a timetable that he announced in advance in terms of when U.S. troops would draw down in Afghanistan.
Instead, President Trump will use a conditions based approach. If that sounds familiar, that`s because it`s going back to the way that George W. Bush talked about the wars that he started. You`ll recall George W. Bush when he was president saying, I`m not going to give you a date when we`re going to end the war or leave Iraq. When they stand up, we`ll stand down. It was a conditioned based approach to tend of that war.
That war, of course, did not end while George W. Bush was president and arguably, it still has not ended today. But that type of George W. Bush approach is what President Trump is now talking about going back to.
He also said a couple of times that he wants to use all elements of U.S. power, not just the military power in terms of moving forward in Afghanistan. It should be noted I think when he says that the other elements of U.S. power that are brought to bear in a situation like Afghanistan obviously include things like the State Department which is understaffed and underpowered to an extent that has never been true in decades.
Also crucially in June, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a job that had originally been held by Richard Holbrook. Several other people held that job. The most recent person was Laurel Miller.
That office, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, that was just dissolved by the Trump presidency, by the Trump administration with no announcement. They even didn`t tell the people who work in that office that their jobs were going away. They closed the office in June without saying a word about it.
So, to the extent that the president is calling for a whole of government approach toward bringing things forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the one person who was supposed to lead those efforts in U.S. government not only is now gone, but her entire office was shut down behind her while she was on her way out the door.
In terms of what is new here, the president is taking on a newly threatening and belligerent tone towards Pakistan, saying that Pakistan needs to prove that it is committed to civilization, order and peace. That will be taken as a shot across the bow in Pakistan, which, of course, is a nuclear-armed country and nominally, one of our allies.
It will also be seen as intensely provocative to Pakistan that the president tonight called on India, Pakistan`s archrival and its greatest bogeyman n the world, the president calling on India to get more deeply and directly involved in Afghanistan. That will be seen as directly challenging to the Pakistanis, alongside these threats from the president tonight.
We`re going to be talking with Courtney Kube, our national security producer and Andrea Mitchell who is the most plugged in reporter in the United States in terms of the American foreign policy establishment, to try to get a sense of what the president might have meant granularly with those threats and that change in stance that he sort of indicated tonight but didn`t spell out.
Before we get to those reporters, though, I do actually just want to bring in for a little perspective, NBC News presidential historian, Michael Beschloss.
Michael, I wanted to talk to you about this tonight, because it is so rare to have a new president grappling with major wars that he didn`t start.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Right.
MADDOW: I know you`ve pointed out there`s only been a handful. He`s the fifth U.S. president to take office in those circumstances
MADDOW: Given how other presidents have handled that challenge, how would you place him on that number line tonight?
BESCHLOSS: Well, it was a nuanced speech. You know, you didn`t hear him blustering about fire and fury as he did, you know, pretty recently about North Korea.
I think -- you know, you were talking about Nixon a little earlier, Rachel, and I think the best parallel is Nixon gave a famous speech November of 1969. He had gone through his first year saying, as you said, I have a secret plan to end the war, didn`t tell anyone what it was. This speech was intended to reveal it and he said my plan is Vietnamization. I`m going to shift the burden to the South Vietnamese and he vowed that he would not be defeated.
And in retrospect, we now know that that speech was really heralding sort of a slow American withdrawal. And on the Nixon tapes, we know that Nixon was privately saying, you know, once we get out, I don`t except this government to -- this government in Saigon to remain. I think that`s going to collapse.
So, you know, by that measure, Rachel, take a look at the language we heard tonight. Donald Trump used three words I think he will come to regret. He said, this is my plan for victory.
And then he went on to say, you know, essentially suggest that there might be a very modest troop surge and also said, as you were referring to, you know, I`m not against withdrawal, essentially he said, these are his words, hasty withdrawal and announced withdrawal. Those are two, you know, basically very big signals that suggest what this speech really is not a suggestion that he`s turned completely around and is now going to move forwards some kind of military victory. What this is I think is, you know, essentially a suggestion that this is going to be a withdrawal date unknown.
Can I make one more point?
BESCHLOSS: And that is, you know, he`s asking Americans to risk their lives on the battlefield. And I think one of the most important things for a president to do is, you know, if a president does not intend to push for victory, at least be frank about that.
That`s one thing that Lyndon Johnson did not do. He sent a lot of American soldier to Vietnam while privately saying, I don`t expect to win.
I hope against hope that what we`re not seeing tonight is Donald Trump sending Americans into harm`s way and privately essentially saying, as he did in 2012, the second we get out, I expect this government to collapse.
MADDOW: Michael Beschloss, NBC`s presidential historian -- Michael, thank you for being with us tonight. You`re exactly one that I wanted to talk to tonight. I appreciate that.
MADDOW: And to Michael`s point, there are -- there`s nobody for whom tonight`s -- there are no Americans for whom tonight`s remarks are greater stakes than the 8,500 American military families who have a loved one serving in Afghanistan. The troop numbers in Afghanistan have gone as high as 100,000 American soldiers serving there in the first term of the Obama administration. It`s now down to 8,500. We were told in advance of tonight`s speech to expect that the president might be green-lighting, although not explicitly talking about a small increase in troop numbers.
We know that General Nicholson, who`s the American commanding general in Afghanistan, had expressed a preference to have a few more thousand U.S. troops to work with. Nothing like that would actually spelled out tonight. I`m not quite sure that we got any direct explanation for the president about anything specifically that is going to change, other than calling it a new strategy. That said, sometimes the Pentagon knows what they`re listening for in a way that we laymen don`t.
Joining us now from the Pentagon is Courtney Kube, NBC News national security and military reporter. She`s been covering the Pentagon for more than a dozen years. She`s been to Afghanistan more than two dozen times.
Courtney, thank you so much for being with us tonight. I really appreciate it.
COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY AND MILITARY REPORTER: Thanks, Rachel.
MADDOW: So, I`m gleaning what I can from the president`s word, from his tone, from the shift this represents from his earlier clear stance that the war in Afghanistan should be ended immediately. Within the Pentagon, at the Defense Department, is there a clear sense of what has changed tonight or what the president was directing?
KUBE: So, there were a couple of small things that he mentioned that show a path forward for the military. Let me just start by saying, there is not some dramatic change in the war in Afghanistan based on the speech that he gave tonight.
But a couple of minor things. One was when he talked about expanding authorities for targeting terrorists and criminal networks in Afghanistan. To me, what that sounds like is he`s giving the authority for the U.S. military to start targeting, offensively targeting the Taliban again. You`ll remember in 2014, the, quote/unquote, combat mission in Afghanistan ended in a train -- it turned over to a train and advice assist mission for the Afghan military.
This sounds like, he didn`t spell it out explicitly, but it sounds like President Trump is saying once again, the U.S. military will have the authority to target the Taliban. They also -- the military right now is -- they have the ability to target al Qaeda, ISIS. Some Haqqani Network, they also have the inherent right of self defense, of course. But it sounds like this is a new authority that he`s granting.
He also said that --
MADDOW: Courtney, before you get to the second point, can I just ask a clarifying question there?
MADDOW: One of the things that we noticed is that the president even before tonight has talked about devolving decision-making authority on key matters. Like when there was the gigantic so-called mother of all bombs that they dropped in eastern Afghanistan in that second week of April, one of the key reporting moments there was when we learned that it was General Nicholson in Afghanistan that ordered that. It was nothing that went up the chain either through the secretary of defense or the president, a very dramatic decision there.
We`ve also been told that the sort of, the -- I don`t know if it`s explicitly the rules of engagement, but the terms op of which U.S. officials are engaging in combat in Afghanistan and in other ballot fields have already been loosened from what was happening in the Obama administration.
So, is this the president describing something tonight that has already been in effect for months?
KUBE: Well, yes and no. So, I mean, you heard him say tonight that we can`t micromanage a war from Washington. That wars are fought in the battlefield and they`re managed in the battlefield.
So, back in June, President Trump gave Secretary Mattis the authority to deploy forces to Afghanistan
KUBE: -- without going to the White House and requesting any special permission. Secretary Mattis has had that authority for more than two months. What I find particularly interesting is that he has not used it.
General Nicholson back in February and actually last fall, he started talking openly about the fact that he needs several thousand more U.S. troops in Afghanistan to fight the war there, to continue with the mission. Secretary Mattis made a very concerted effort and decision not to deploy those additional troops when he had that authority in June. He wanted this to be President Trump`s strategy.
President Trump with this announcement, with this speech tonight owns this war. This is now his strategy that the U.S. military will be implementing. Right when the speech ended, Secretary Mattis put out a written statement where he talked about he`s directed General Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to implement this new strategy.
So, President Trump has really been running this war like a CEO. He`s delegating things out to his commanders or his vice president underneath him. Secretary Mattis made a very specific decision here and said, no, I will not send troops into harm`s way unless I`m doing it under your strategy, President Trump.
MADDOW: Now, he`s made that strategy explicit, which I guess from the perspective of the military, lines things up so that they feel that they can carry out these authorities that were already delegated to them. I guess in that sense, it`s sort of a reassertion of the chain of command and civilian control of the military even if they had to push them out there to do it.
KUBE: Absolutely. And then there`s just one other thing you mentioned earlier, is just this no timeline for withdrawal. But he also made it very clear, President Trump, that this is not an open ended commitment. And he talked about how the U.S. is going to need to see real reforms and real results from the Afghan government in order to stay there.
That`s something -- that`s language that we`re not accustomed to hearing. You know, there`s the Afghan government, it has its problems. It has problems with corruption. The military has its problems.
But that is a very specific -- I don`t want to use the word threat -- but that is specific language that we`re not accustomed to hearing from the American government against the Afghans.
MADDOW: Courtney Kube, NBC News national security and military reporter, joining us tonight from the Pentagon -- Courtney, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
KUBE: Thank you.
MADDOW: I want the bring now into the conversation, Andrea Mitchell, NBC`s chief foreign affairs correspondent, the host of "ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS" here on MSNBC.
Andrea, thank you for being with us tonight. I know it`s a busy night for you.
ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC HOST, "ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS": Thank you.
MADDOW: I want to ask you about the president`s remarks toward Pakistan tonight.
MADDOW: Those are the things that struck me as a change in American international relations in the sense that the President insulted Pakistan to my ear when he said that Pakistan needs to demonstrate that it`s committed to civilization, order and peace, telling a country that they`re not committed to civilization is essentially calling them barbarians. I doubt that that will be well-received. And then he immediately followed it saying, and we would like more direct involvement in Afghanistan from India, which, of course, will raise hackles in the Pakistani government, because of the fraught relationship between those two countries.
That seems to me like the biggest change diplomatically in international relation tonight. Can I ask your reaction to that?
MITCHELL: Yes, absolutely, that`s what leaped out to me, because American diplomats and presidents have made a pact really for decades. You don`t go to Pakistan without also going to India.
It`s been this even-handed approach. You`ve got two nuclear arms states. They`ve fought so many wars between them. And the fact is this is a direct insult to Pakistan which frankly deserves insult because they protect and shelter the Haqqani Network.
But by bringing -- first, by -- first all laying out Pakistan, the responsibility on Pakistan to do something about their terrorists, it`s not usually done this openly. And by bringing India into it, it is such an insult, it`s such a provocation that I can`t see what the incentive would be for Pakistan to take any action. They now have their pride and their authority, their nationhood challenged by the president. So, it is a strange way to try to expand the strategy to include all of South Asia.
MADDOW: And in terms of the U.S. government and its orientation on these issues, I mean, the president didn`t appoint a random crony or fundraiser to be ambassador of Pakistan. There`s career foreign service person who has been named as the ambassador to Pakistan. That seems like a gesture towards stability, at least in that relationship.
That said, he dissolved the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is an envoy, sort of super envoy position that existed throughout the Obama administration. And then we`ve seen such major changes at the State Department, including not staffing up even the senior ranks of that agency.
How will -- if a new big fight with a nuclear power has been picked by the president, how is that going to be staffed and handled by this administration?
MITCHELL: Well, it isn`t staffed and it isn`t handled. You`ve got just a handful of people in position not really able to cope with this kind of thing. The fact is also that when he says no more nation-building, Rachel, there has been a positive effect from what both Presidents Bush and Obama did.
Now, a lot of that has gone down the drain in the last couple of years as the Taliban reclaimed territory. There`s no question that we`re losing. That we`re not just in stalemate, that the good guys are falling behind, and that there`s corruption in Kabul.
In the past, you did hear this against Karzai, but you have not heard against this government in Kabul. So, that is also picking at its war (ph). But I don`t see what the change is. Other than what Courtney said, he deliberately gave Mattis, Nicholson and the other generals the ability to decide on future deployments.
Mattis I think very smartly did not accept it by delaying this until there was a review and getting the president`s buy-in. I think the biggest change may be they`ve persuaded over many meetings and many arguments to get the president to go against his own grain, to go against his own instincts, go against Steve Bannon, if you will, and to make a decision that is more in line with what his generals believe, necessary, which is not a complete withdrawal and certainly not hiring Erik Prince for $10 billion to bring his mercenaries in and turn it over to the private sector.
So, that is where his head was and his heart. And they have now reeled him in and he`s going along with Nicholson whom he publicly criticized, and the chairman of the joint chiefs and Mattis and H.R. McMaster and, of course, John Kelly for whom Afghanistan is such an emotional challenge, given the fact that he lost his son after the Obama increase to 30,000 troops, and that he has another marine son either deploying or about to be deployed.
MADDOW: Yes, that human connection for some of the key decision makers here is absolutely key.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC`s chief foreign affairs correspondent, pleasure and an honor to have you here with us tonight, Andrea, thank you so much.
MITCHELL: Pleasure is mine.
MADDOW: Joining us now here in the studio is Andrew Exum. He`s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan in 2009. He served as an adviser to General Stanley McChrystal. He`s a contributing editor at "The Atlantic" magazine now.
Mr. Exum, it`s great to have you here. Nice to see you.
ANDREW EXUM, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC MAGAZINE: Thanks so much. Good to be here.
MADDOW: Let me ask your top line reaction to the speech tonight.
EXUM: Yes, I think you hit it. I mean, it`s not really a big policy change. The big shift is where the president has been. So, he has been down on this war and now, he`s the president and has to confront a series of some really bad options in Afghanistan.
I think the biggest takeaway is that he is now taken ownership of this war, to a certain degree Mattis insisted on that. This is not going to be something he just delegated to the generals and could then blame on the generals.
EXUM: And now, he has -- he has ownership of it.
I think the Pakistan stuff, that could be significant. We`ll see. It`s certainly going to cause ripples.
My question and I hate to go straight to the operational side of things but so many of our lines of communication and reply run through Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how they thread that needle on the one hand dependent on Pakistan for logistics and on the other hand, calling them and taking them to task quite frankly, fairly as well for their support for Haqqani Network and for other organizations.
MADDOW: It was interesting today when we got some of the supporting reporting about what was going on in the administration to prepare for this speech and we got word that the vice president was speaking with the Afghan president and that Rex Tillerson, secretary of state, was speaking with his equal number in Afghanistan and Pakistan and India. And I thought, uh-oh.
MADDOW: We`re going to Pakistan in this subject.
I mean, is this the sort of thing -- are our relations with Pakistan so tender and fragile that bellicose words like this from the president can really screw things up, or do they expect that that has to happen in our politics and they think the real conversations happen on the private line with Rex Tillerson?
EXUM: I don`t know. And, quite frankly, I`d have to defer it to a real specialist in Pakistani politics.
I`ll say this and having spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, we have often called out the Pakistanis privately. We have often, you know, used the levers that we have in terms of the military aid that we give them to try to pressure them and to change in their behavior in Afghanistan.
That hasn`t worked. It`s been 16 years and so, you get the sense that the Trump administration and many of the key leaders in the military are willing to try something different. Again, that carries huge risks but I also have to see just exactly what this is. I mean, if you look at the actual policy that the Obama administration had towards the war in Afghanistan, it`s not that much different from what we heard tonight.
So, I think we have to figure out, you know, what the president said is going to be really significant and what is going to be a change and what`s going to be different. I think you`re exactly right, the highlight, the way in which the president called out India and wanting India to play a larger role in Afghanistan. This, of course, is -- you know, will trigger all of the gravest fears within the Pakistani military and within their -- the Pakistani deep state.
EXUM: So --
MADDOW: One last question for you.
MADDOW: The issue that Andrea raised about the privatization plan that we heard floated, I mean, I don`t -- I won`t believe it`s dead until I see a stake in its heart. But is it possible -- I mean, if they really are considering taking the U.S. military out and putting in thousands of private contractors under Erik Prince`s leadership to run this as a for- profit private enterprise, how far out side the realm of possibility is that, as far as you`re concerned?
EXUM: Well, I think we should be somewhat, I mean, first off, let`s not hold the president to task with wanting to go back to first principles and wanting to see every available option because, goodness knows, after 16 years and he`s coming in with a fresh set of eyes, let`s give him the benefit of the doubt. I think any president would want to see the full range of options.
I also think it`s very warming that both Secretary Mattis and General McMaster, the national security adviser, heard out Erik Prince in terms of his plan and said, no, we`re not going to do that. We`re not going to outsource our war fighting to private industry and I think that was a positive and I would have been very worried about the fabric of our country going forward have we done that.
MADDOW: Yes, thank you for your time on that. Andrew Exum, Afghan War veteran, contributing editor at "The Atlantic" magazine -- Andrew, it`s great to have you here.
EXUM: Yes, great to see you.
MADDOW: Thank, my friend.
MADDOW: All right. Joining us now is Phil Carter. He`s an Iraq War veteran and he`s a former assistant secretary of defense who spent considerable time in Afghanistan in that role. He`s now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Mr. Carter, thank you very much for being with us tonight. I`m really glad to have you here.
PHIL CARTER, FOUNDING MEMBER, IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA: Thanks, Rachel.
MADDOW: Let me ask you the same first question I asked Andrew Exum. Just your top line reaction to what the president said tonight.
CARTER: You bet. So, I think what we heard tonight was a formula for a forever war. You heard the shift from a time-based strategy to a conditions-based strategy. Very opaque speech with respect to details, objectives, goals and troop levels, and a seeming commitment to fight as long as necessary for what Trump called a, quote, honorable and enduring outcome but no real detail as to what that might be.
MADDOW: Would the president have been able to say anything tonight that would have given you confidence that he knew how to change the course of the war in Afghanistan?
CARTER: It`s been a really long war. And so, we`ve heard a lot of strategy so far. I think what would have been helpful here is to hear about the tradeoffs he made, why abandon nation-building, why focus on counterterrorism? And also, what is our purpose? What is the thing that keeps us going after spending so much blood and treasure? That`s not just important for us. You heard, he harangued our allies and said, you know, you have to invest more too. And more inspiring statement of purpose might do more to bring along the allies who have sacrificed so much with us in Afghanistan.
MADDOW: Do you think there needs to be a change in resources to better support the U.S. troops that are there in whatever numbers? Again, there`s about 8,500 American service members there now. That number may be going up, although we didn`t hear that tonight. Do resource levels need to change, too?
CARTER: Resources have to go along with what your goals are. If there`s a disconnect there, your strategy will fail. We did not hear anything about resources. It`s been reported that they might add about 4,000 troops, bringing us up to somewhere around 13,000.
It`s unclear what 13,000 troops could accomplish in Afghanistan that 100,000 could not accomplish several years ago under President Obama.
MADDOW: Philip Carter, really appreciate your time tonight. Your experience as a combat adviser and now serving as a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, appreciate it. Thank you.
CARTER: Thank you.
MADDOW: Joining us now is my friend Chris Matthews, who is the host of HARDBALL, who I want to speak to every night that there`s a speech in the world.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST, HARDBALL: Thank you.
MADDOW: Chris, let me get your top line response. What did you think about tonight?
MATTHEWS: Well, I listened closely and as all of your previous guests -- they were all excellent. I thought Michael Beschloss started the ball rolling with the historic thing as well, as you did earlier than that.
Look, I think there`s two kind of wars we`re familiar with. You`ve got to know which one you`re in. A war of annihilation, like we went to Berlin. The Red Army took over Berlin, we won the war. We dropped the two bombs in Japan, we won that war. Those sides collapsed. They were finished, unconditional surrender.
The other kind of war we unfortunately familiar with is wars of attrition, where one side tries to wear down the other side. And tonight, I think the president admitted that that is the kind of war he wants here. He said, our goal is to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, to prevent them. A holding action.
In other words, we`re not going to annihilate the Taliban. They are going to be there in perpetuity. Our question is, when are we going to leave? And my question then for the president is, when we leave, they take over.
He talked about the evils of ISIS and al Qaeda. We know all that. But what we are fighting over there is we`re fighting the Taliban. That`s what the Afghan government is fighting, it`s what we`re going to be fighting, whether it`s a private army, an outsourced army or U.S. army, we`re fighting the Taliban and he says his only goal was to prevent them from taking over while we`re there.
We`re going to leave, they`re going to stay. You can figure it out. We`ve been through this with Vietnam. The local people always win wars of attrition, because eventually, the great power goes home.
Now, he says he wants an enduring outcome. Does that mean we stay? We just stay. That`s the great question. Permanently.
MADDOW: Chris, when he talked -- you know, Courtney Kube raised this issue at the end of her remarks, when he had her own earlier. She said, you know, when the president said basically we`re going to stay until we see real results from the Afghan government, until we see the Afghan government show real reform and real results, I think she`s highlighting that point in the speech because that seems like a thing that if that`s going to be the predicate for America doing anything, that is a recipe for us continuing to do what we`re doing now forever because it`s --
MATTHEWS: I`m sorry. You had me on to give the politics and I think you know the politics. I heard you earlier tonight. You know the politics.
It is that no president wants to admit defeat or be responsible for, quote, losing a country, whether it`s China, whoever, Vietnam, losing, Afghanistan, as if we ever had it. So, that sets up a predicate. You must stay long enough to survive your own political term, your tenure of office.
If it`s one term for Trump, he`ll want to stay until 2020. If he gets re- elected, who knows, he wants to stay until 2024. That`s the political imperative. Don`t be on watch when we lose.
We saw that -- you went through the history, went through this with Jack Kennedy, with Lyndon Johnson, with Richard Nixon with Vietnam, and, of course with W., and on through Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, we have this president on watch. He doesn`t want to lose while it`s on his watch, so he says while he`s in office, this is what he said tonight, while we`re there under my watch and my leadership, we will prevent the takeover of the Taliban of Afghanistan.
Yes, we can probably do that as long as we`re there. But the question is, if we`re ever going to leave, when? And if we`re ever going to leave, why not now? When? What`s ever going to change?
Because as long as the Taliban is in the field against an Afghan government, who are you going to bet on? I would be on the Taliban. They`re the most zealous, the most ruthless, the most frightening. They really want to win.
And they`re winning right now without us upgrading our force. And if we go to 4,000 more American troops over there, making it a 50 percent hike than we have, is that going to stop them from winning? Perhaps for a few years, long enough for Trump to face re-election. But a lot of lives will be lost on our side and a lot of people we will kill. And I don`t think it`s morally justified to stay in war to keep somebody`s political scalp from being taken.
MADDOW: Chris Matthews, host of "HARDBALL" here on MSNBC -- thank you, my friend. I`m really glad you`re here with us tonight.
MATTHEWS: Thank you.
MADDOW: To Chris` point there about the equilibrium in Afghanistan, I mean, the pointed nature of the president`s comments tonight on Pakistan, you know, set off alarm bells for a lot of reasons. Pakistan is a big, nuclear-armed country. Pakistan is ostensibly our ally.
It also remains true that while we support the sort of anti-Taliban side in Afghanistan, they support the Taliban. And that has long been true and that`s true of the attendant groups aside from the Taliban that have killed so Americans over these long years that we`ve been in Afghanistan. So, if the president wants to dramatically change our relationship and our stance towards Pakistan, that potentially could be very, very consequential.
We have to believe that he knows what he`s doing. He has a plan for how to capitalize on the upset he`s about to cause in that country, and he has the means, the intellectual fire power and the personnel to follow it up and make sure it ends in something constructive and not in disaster. And that`s next.
Our coverage of the president`s announcement about Afghanistan continues on this network with Lawrence O`Donnell in the next hour and then, we`re going to have Brian Williams here live in "THE 11TH HOUR".
And then I will be back with a special live edition of THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW at midnight on the East Coast, 9:00 p.m. if you`re joining us on the West Coast. I will see you then.
Our coverage continues now with Lawrence O`Donnell.
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