Trump unchained? Afghan troop surprise shows pre-election impulse to upend policy
By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Less than a month before the election, US President Donald Trump's abrupt vow to bring troops home from Afghanistan by the end of the year is a sign that he is feeling increasingly disengaged, a foreign policy "wish list" enforcing hopes could appeal to voters, current and former officials say.
Trump, a former New York businessman who boasts of his skills as a dealer, has made ending what he has termed "ridiculous endless wars" a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
But the Republican, who lags behind Democratic candidate Joe Biden in polls, still has thousands of troops in Iraq, Syria and at the site of America's longest war, Afghanistan.
Confined to the White House where he's being treated for COVID-19, Trump tweeted on Wednesday that all US troops in Afghanistan should be "home by Christmas," just hours after his national security adviser Robert O. Brien announced that it had reduced the armed forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year.
Trump's tweet took the National Security Council, State Department and Pentagon by surprise, according to three US officials, and feared it could reduce the Afghan government's limited leverage in talks with the Taliban.
"Many different scenarios were discussed, but we did not expect it," said one of the officials on condition of anonymity.
A second official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Trump's statements often underscore his wishes and general intentions rather than any actual plans. He made a similar surprise announcement to withdraw from Syria two years ago, but hundreds of US troops remain.
However, U.S. officials are concerned that in the run-up to the November 3 election, Trump could take steps to gain political points that alienate allies, undermine his own administration's efforts, and turn assumptions about America's national security agenda upside down could.
Officials said no formal orders had been issued due to Trump's tweet and they would be surprised if any steps were taken before the election.
The military will almost certainly shy away from being pushed too quickly to conduct a full retreat, as sensitive equipment, lock bases will have to be removed and destroyed, and safely left where it once housed more than 100,000 soldiers.
However, a complete withdrawal is in sight. A landmark deal between the United States and the Taliban in February said foreign forces would leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counter-terrorism guarantees from the Taliban, who agreed to a permanent ceasefire and apportionment formula with the Afghan government of power to negotiate.
But Trump and other officials had previously said that the United States would sink to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan around November, and any further reduction would depend on conditions in the country - a phrase that echoes deep US national concerns about Al - Qaeda and the Islamic State reflects elements there.
The Taliban hailed Trump's tweet, calling it "a positive step" in fulfilling US pledges.
Even if Trump doesn't get through, the tweet is likely to weaken the Afghan government's position in talks with the Taliban.
Laurel Miller, who served as acting U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Trump appeared to have put his re-election offer above U.S. national security concerns and relations with allies serving alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"This puts another sledgehammer into US credibility around the world," Miller said.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)
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