United States President Donald Trump used his second State of the Union address on Wednesday to inform his nation that his administration is holding talks with several groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
“In Afghanistan, my administration is holding constructive talks with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban,” he announced. “As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troops’ presence and focus on counter-terrorism”.
This marks the first time a US president has acknowledged talking not just to the Afghan Taliban but also to other groups. However, Trump did not name the groups that US officials were in talks with.
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement — but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” he said, indicating that he was still not sure if the talks with the Afghan Taliban will succeed. The Afghan Taliban have so far refused to accept America’s two key demands: holding direct talks with the Kabul government and announcing a ceasefire before the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Apparently aware of the bitterness his domestic policies have created inside the Union, the president focused heavily on his foreign policy agenda. He reaffirmed his pledge to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Syria, sought praise for undoing the Iran nuclear deal, suspending a missiles treaty with Russia and for opening dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“Our brave troops have now been fighting in the Middle East for almost 19 years. In Afghanistan and Iraq, nearly 7,000 American heroes have given their lives,” said Trump, while explaining why he wants to bring his troops home. “More than 52,000 Americans have been badly wounded. We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East,” he added.
Trump recalled that as a candidate for president in 2016, he pledged to withdraw American troops from those regions because “great nations do not fight endless wars”.
Claiming that he had now liberated more than 20,000 square miles in Iraq and Syria, that were once controlled by the militant Islamic State group, Trump declared: “It is time to give our brave warriors in Syria a warm welcome home.”
He did not claim victory in Afghanistan and instead used the recently held US-Taliban talks in Doha and United Arab Emirates for justifying his plan to pull out troops from there as well.
“I have also accelerated our negotiations to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan. Our troops have fought with unmatched valour and thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a political solution to this long and bloody conflict,” he said.
Trump, who was facing a divided Congress for the first time, also called for rejecting “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution” at home and urged Democrats to call off “ridiculous partisan investigations” into his alleged dealings with Russia during the 2016 election campaign. He warned the Democrats that their partisan approach could hamper a surging American economy.
‘Decisive’ action against Iran
Trump reminded his nation that he unilaterally cancelled the 2015, multinational nuclear deal with Iran which promised financial relief to Tehran for giving up its alleged pursuit for nuclear weapons.
“My administration has acted decisively to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terror: the radical regime in Iran,” he said.
Find out: What is the Iran atomic deal and why is it being targeted
“To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons, I withdrew the United States from the disastrous Iran nuclear deal. And last fall, we put in place the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a country.”
US withdrawal from INF treaty
Trump also highlighted his decision earlier this week to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, and of his priorities for creating a new arms control framework in its place.
“Decades ago, the United States entered into a treaty with Russia in which we agreed to limit and reduce our missile capabilities,” he said.
Explore: Dropping nuclear arms treaty may let US update its arsenal ─ but could also launch new arms race
“While we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty.”
He said he was willing to negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others.
“Perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far,” he warned.
Trump announced details of a second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, outlining a summit on Feb 27 and 28 in Vietnam. The two met last summer in Singapore, though that meeting only led to a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearise.
Trump also sought credit for opposing “socialist policies” of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, which he claimed had ruined his nation. He said that his administration was now supporting Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who last month declared himself interim president. President Maduro has accused Guaido and his allies of staging a coup.
‘I will get wall built’
The main focus of the speech, however, was an issue that led to the unprecedented 35-day government shutdown in Washington: A wall on US-Mexico border.
Democrats, who receive much support from legalised immigrants and their heirs, have vowed not to allow Trump to build the wall. But President Trump, who credits America’s anti-immigration lobby for his 2016 victory, says he is determined to do so.
Trump hopes that by building the wall, he can once again win over America’s conservative lobbies who can then win the 2020 elections for him.
Also read: Trump’s wall pledge may not get expected results, says chief of staff
The US president did not use his speech to declare a national emergency, as some Democrats had feared. The emergency would allow him to sidestep Congress and proceed with building the border wall. But he did say that he will fulfil his promise.
“In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall. But the proper wall was never built. I will get it built,” he declared. “This is a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall.”
He said the wall will be built in the areas identified by border agents as having the greatest need, and “where walls go up, illegal crossings go way, way down.”
Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives and outnumber Senators at the National Statuary Hall, mostly sat stony-faced during the president’s speech.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump’s political nemesis, sat behind his left shoulder, offering only sparing applause. Several senators running for president in 2020 were also in the audience and they too maintained an uneasy silence.
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who delivered the traditional response to the presidential address later, made it obvious that Trump’s calls for conciliation did not impress the Democrats.
She dismissed Trump’s depiction of the Democratic opposition to his policies as “divisive” and “partisan” and called the recent government shutdown as a “disgrace” and “a stunt” by the president.
“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country,” Abrams said. “We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab’.”