Trump throws curveball on Afghan troop levels
Washington scrambled Thursday to make sense of President Trump’s plans for Afghanistan after he said all U.S. troops “should” be “home by Christmas.”
The suggestion, delivered in a Wednesday evening tweet, came just hours after his own national security adviser said the U.S. would draw down to about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan by early next year.
The Pentagon and U.S. Central Command have yet to weigh in, further stoking the confusion.
Trump’s missive comes as he has focused on troop withdrawals in the final stretch of the presidential election, seeking to show he fulfilled his promise to end so-called forever wars.
“What we are seeing here is the internal conflict of a president of the United States focused on keeping his foreign policy promises 26 days before an election and the national security professionals charged with mitigating against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan,” Andy Keiser, a principal at the lobbying firm Navigators Global who worked on Trump’s 2016 transition team, said in an email.
Right now, the official number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is about 8,600. Trump and other administration officials have previously said the U.S. is in the process of lowering that number to about 4,500 by Election Day.
Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, which U.S. troops first entered 19 years ago to the day Wednesday.
He has ramped up those calls as the 2020 presidential campaign enters its final stretch and he seeks foreign policy wins amid heavy criticism of his handling of domestic issues like the COVID-19 crisis and racial tensions.
On Wednesday, during a speech at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, national security adviser Robert O’Brien announced a drawdown to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan by early 2021.
Hours later, a little before Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate started, Trump sent his bewildering tweet.
“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” he tweeted.
Questions immediately swirled about whether Trump had actually ordered a withdrawal, particularly because of his use of the word “should.”
The Pentagon and Central Command, the combatant command that oversees the war in Afghanistan, referred questions about Trump’s tweet and O’Brien’s comments to the White House.
Asked for a clarification on the meaning of Trump’s tweet, a senior administration official said they have “nothing to add to the president’s comments.”
“The president really laid down a marker as the commander in chief, and we all follow his lead,” the official said. “The president has been clear in his many previous statements of his intentions to bring U.S. troops home safely and soon from Afghanistan.”
Both a full withdrawal and O’Brien’s drawdown would contradict other officials’ assurances they would review conditions on the ground before dropping below 4,500 troops.
“We’ll be watching very carefully to assess the conditions of Taliban compliance with the terms of its agreement, and that will be used to inform decisions on further and future withdrawals,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s envoy for Afghanistan negotiations, told a House panel last month.
Trump’s desire for full withdrawal also accelerates the timeline laid out in the administration’s agreement with the Taliban.
The agreement, signed in February, called for a full U.S. withdrawal by May 2021. But, the deal stipulates that will only happen if the Taliban upholds its commitment to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups intent on attacking the West — something the U.S. military says it has yet to do.
“The Taliban has still not shown conclusively that they’re going to break with al Qaeda,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said in September. “So there are still some things out there that concern me about the Taliban’s either ability or willingness to comply with all the terms of the deal.”
The Taliban, unsurprisingly, welcomed Trump’s tweet.
“Islamic Emirate welcomes these remarks and considers it a positive step for the implementation of the agreement signed between the IEA and the U.S.,” a spokesman for the insurgents said in a statement posted to Twitter on Thursday, using the Taliban’s preferred name for itself.
NATO, which contributes thousands of troops to the Afghanistan mission, insisted Thursday any withdrawal will be “conditions-based.”
“Our approach is a conditions-based approach,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said when asked about Trump’s tweet. “We will make decisions based on the conditions on the ground because we think it is extremely important to continue to be committed to the future of Afghanistan because it is in our interest to preserve the long-term security of Afghanistan.”
Despite the Pentagon maintaining the Taliban has not upheld its end of the deal, the department has worked to make sure it is not blindsided by any Trump order for a full withdrawal. At last month’s House hearing, a top official said the department has started “prudent planning to withdraw to zero service members by May 2021 if conditions warrant.”
Trump withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of the year could limit options for a Biden administration if the Democratic nominee wins in November. Former Vice President Joe Biden has said he would withdraw most troops, but leave a small contingent of special forces there to continue conducting counterterrorism operations.
“It is certainly easier in the current political climate to remove U.S. troops than it is to increase U.S. troops,” said Scott Worden, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan and Central Asia programs. “So as you remove them, it does narrow options in the future, but it does not prohibit any future administration from making their own decisions on what’s the right level of assistance or support.”
Keiser acknowledged the public’s increasing lack of support for America’s longest war, but blamed the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations for not making “broadly clear” that it is in the “nation’s strategic interests” to stay.
“Nearly every foreign policy expert agrees that were the United States to completely withdraw from Afghanistan, the void is eventually more likely to be filled by the Taliban than the Afghan government,” Keiser said. “I do hope the Trump administration learns from perhaps the most significant foreign policy mistake of the Obama administration when they completely withdrew from Iraq, which led to the rapid growth of ISIS requiring us to return.”
Trump has tried to withdraw troops from war zones before only to be met by fierce opposition within his administration and among lawmakers in both parties. Most notably, he has announced a full withdrawal from Syria several times, but about 500 troops remain there.
For Afghanistan, U.S. lawmakers are hoping to tie Trump’s hands through the annual defense policy bill, though that is not expected to be finalized until December. An amendment in the House-passed version of the bill would block a drawdown below 4,000 troops unless the Pentagon certifies it is in the best interest of the United States, among other criteria.
“Bringing US troops home from Afghanistan before the job is done is dangerous,” Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who is retiring from Congress at the end of this term, tweeted Thursday. “American troops are making a difference. If we remove them, it could create a power vacuum for those looking to take advantage of the situation. Wrong move at the wrong time.”
Trump’s talk of a full withdrawal comes after negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban got underway last month after months of delay.
Regional experts are warning the conflicting messages from Trump and O’Brien risk rocking the delicate intra-Afghan talks.
“It I’m sure is causing a lot of questions and reconsideration of different strategies because the U.S.’s plan for assistance to Afghanistan significantly affects each of the elements of the negotiation,” Worden said. “So this will cause those that are in the negotiation to seek greater clarity before they make commitments to each other on a way forward.”
If Trump proceeds with a full withdrawal by December, Worden added, the United States loses leverage to ensure the Taliban upholds its counterterrorism commitments. The Taliban’s leverage in the intra-Afghan talks would also increase because its main goal is to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
“Ultimately, the Taliban uses violence as its main source of leverage in the talks against the Afghan government,” Worden said. “And so if our support to the Afghan, particularly if our military support, to the Afghan government is dramatically reduced, it allows the Taliban to maintain their violence as a pressure tactic and to achieve their objective without making any concessions.”