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Trump Weighs Sending as Many as 5,000 More Troops to Afghanistan

President Trump has yet to decide on a variety of options being presented to him by U.S. military leaders, senior administration officials say.
Image: Mattis arrives to the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul
Defense Secretary James Mattis, third right, walks with U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major David Clark, left, and General Christopher Haas, second right, as he arrives to the Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul Monday.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

The Trump administration is weighing a drastic change when it comes to Afghanistan: Whether to send as many as 5,000 more troops in the fight, a military official told NBC News.

Trump, however, is still deciding on a variety of options being presented to him by U.S. military leaders, senior administration officials told NBC News.

The Washington Post first reported that the plan could involve an increase of at least 3,000 troops, with the U.S. asking other NATO nations to match. The U.S.'s force in Afghanistan currently totals about 8,400.

A U.S. official told The Post that Trump wants to "start winning" again and has the backing of top Cabinet officials. He is expected to make his mind up on strategy before attending a May 25 NATO summit in Brussels, the newspaper reported.

But two senior defense officials told NBC News that Defense Secretary James Mattis has not made his formal recommendations to the president. One official said that the Afghanistan policy review has not formally made it to the principals committee at the National Security Council, an indication that a final decision on troop levels is unlikely to come soon.

At the press briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer stressed that no decision has been made and that Trump has asked his national security team "to actually actually rethink the strategy."

The goal, Spicer said, is "reducing the threat, especially when it comes to ISIS and the Taliban."

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the president will need to better explain his strategy in a country that remains mired in conflict for over 15 years.

"What is the strategy now?" Rice said on TODAY. "It doesn’t make sense to increase troop strength to keep doing the same thing."

Among the possibilities that are being mulled over: allowing Mattis to set the troop levels for Afghanistan — similar to the Pentagon doing so for Iraq and Syria, sending potentially several thousand more troops there, and ending some Obama-era rules on how the U.S. military operates in the country, including on its ability to go after the Taliban.

Discussion surrounding how to handle Afghanistan comes just weeks after the U.S. dropped the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used — also known as the "mother of all bombs" — to obliterate an ISIS tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan. Two U.S. Army Rangers were also killed last month in the same region during a firefight outside of an ISIS compound.

Coalition forces have been engaged in a dual conflict against both the Taliban, which was toppled in 2001, as well as ISIS's regional branch for South Asia known as ISIS-K.

Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has suggested to Congress that the NATO coalition needs several thousand more troops in the country. He has also not refuted previous reports that Russia is helping to arm the Afghan Taliban.

"We’ve tried this before, we’ve tried to fortify our effort in Afghanistan under Republican and Democratic presidents, and the fact is we’re still in a situation where the Taliban controls a massive part of the territory," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said on MSNBC. "We need to have an honest answer to the question: Will the Afghans ever be in a position where there is less corruption and there is less incompetence and they’re able to stand up and defend their own nation? It’s time for some honest answers."

Trump held a different view on Afghanistan before he entered politics, tweeting in 2013 that the U.S. should leave immediately or "if we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick."

Rice, who was also national security adviser under President George W. Bush, didn't specifically say whether she believes additional troop deployment would do the trick this time around — particularly after the Obama administration's surge that saw 100,000 troops there in 2010 failed to suppress the Taliban.

"Well, I'd certainly urge the President to look at how we can turn the tide in Afghanistan," she told TODAY. "I know we've been there a very, very long time and obviously the goal is to have a government that's stable in Kabul that can't be assaulted by the Taliban."

While the U.S. may find Russian diplomacy helpful for dealing with North Korea, Rice cautioned about trusting President Vladimir Putin when it comes to Middle East policy.

"One of the first conversations needs to be with Vladimir Putin and to say, 'Do you really want to get back into Afghanistan after what happened to you before in Afghanistan?' There's no reason for the Russians to be arming the Taliban," Rice added, "and so that conversation needs to take place."

Trump was largely critical of escalating U.S. military commitments as a candidate for president. But Spicer dismissed the Afghanistan review as a reversal of his campaign pledge.

“There is a difference between Afghanistan proper and our effort to defeat ISIS," Spicer said. "And that’s one thing that he was also very clear on in the campaign and as president that he is going to do everything he can to fight radical Islamic terrorism."