Military blindsided by Trump's new Afghan troop withdrawal
WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. military was blind on Thursday to President Donald Trump's claim that all U.S. troops will be leaving Afghanistan by the end of the year. US officials said they were unaware of such a plan and had not received any actual order to expedite the gradual undressing that they were carrying out.
Trump's comments, set out in a confusing series of comments and a tweet, alarmed Pentagon and state officials fearing that a final date for troop withdrawal could undermine negotiations to conclude a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. They also fear that a hasty withdrawal could force the US to abandon sensitive military equipment. And they continue to stress that the Taliban have still not met the requirements to reduce violence against Afghans, a key element of the US withdrawal plan.
The Taliban welcomed Trump's announcements, which began with a tweet on Wednesday saying, "We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE men and women at home in Afghanistan by Christmas." In an interview with Fox Business Channel that underestimated the number of troops currently in Afghanistan, he reiterated plans for an early withdrawal on Thursday morning.
"We only have 4,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. I'll have them at home by the end of the year. They're coming home, you know, as we speak. Nineteen years is enough. You act as cops, OK? You don't act as troops" said Trump.
Several US officials, who discussed sensitive troop details on condition of anonymity, said they did not know a plan for either of the two new deadlines. Instead, they pointed to comments made Wednesday by National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, who told an audience in Las Vegas that "there are fewer than 5,000 people to date and that will increase to 2,500 by early next year."
US officials said troop numbers had not yet been reduced to 4,500 but would reach that target in November as planned. The military has also consistently said that the anti-terrorist forces would remain in Afghanistan for some time to deal with the threats posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
A senior Trump administration official said Trump set a marker for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan with his tweet on Wednesday and, being the commander in chief, the rest of the administration will follow suit. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the troop withdrawals.
However, this isn't the first time Trump has turned military policy or troop withdrawal plans upside down with an abrupt tweet to convince himself to adjust his thinking or give the military more time to take a more conscious approach. Trump's demand, for example, to withdraw all troops from Syria, was eventually changed and there are still fewer than 1,000 armed forces there.
Even before Trump's most recent statement, the White House refused to allow US negotiators to base troop withdrawals on the signing of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Instead, American diplomats and military officials could only say that withdrawals would be based on local conditions, which means a measurable reduction in Taliban attacks, rather than finding a solution to the country's longstanding internal conflicts.
"What we need to see is that they will not allow al-Qaeda to settle there," said General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, in an interview with NBC News in September. "And that has not yet been proven to my satisfaction."
McKenzie and other military officials have also said the drawdown must be carried out responsibly and that moving faster will make it more difficult to get sensitive and critical American military equipment out of Afghanistan.
"We're not going to leave anything behind for someone else to use against us at another time and place. So that's a huge logistical burden and it goes on now," McKenzie said last month.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who was asked about Trump's comments on Thursday, did not say whether he had been informed of the new deadlines. Instead, he said NATO and all allies would coordinate their efforts and "make decisions based on local conditions because we believe it is extremely important to remain committed to Afghanistan's future."
America's exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was set out in a February agreement that Washington concluded with the Taliban. That agreement said US troops would leave Afghanistan in 18 months, provided the Taliban honored its commitment to counter terrorist groups, with attention apparently focused on the Islamic State group's subsidiary in the country.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed welcomed Trump's tweet as a positive step towards the implementation of the US-Taliban agreement. The Taliban are "committed to the content of the agreement and hope for good and positive relations with all countries, including the USA, in the future."
The Taliban and the Afghan government-appointed negotiating team are holding peace talks in Doha, Qatar, but progress has been painfully slow.
Washington Ambassador for Peace, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with General Austin Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army General Qamar Jaaved Bajwa in Pakistan on Thursday. Pakistan has helped bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and its role is seen as critical to lasting peace in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad sought to get both sides - especially the Taliban - to work to reduce violence, at least during the ongoing negotiations in Qatar and until a permanent ceasefire was negotiated.
It is likely that Miller and Khalilzad sought the help of the powerful Pakistani military to pressure the Taliban, who have insisted on fighting the Afghan security forces while talks are taking place. As of February, the insurgents promised not to attack US and NATO troops.
Gannon reported from Islamabad. Associate press writers Deb Riechmann and Matthew Lee in Washington and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
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