Top general dodges on Afghanistan plans after Trump tweet

Greg Nash

The top general in the United States dodged questions on a timeline for U.S. withdrawals from Afghanistan after President Trump said all U.S. troops “should” be “home by Christmas.”

In an interview with NPR that aired Monday morning, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley would not discuss specific plans but insisted the United States would “responsibly” end the war.

“We’re on a plan to do a responsible, deliberate drawdown to about 4,500 here very shortly,” Milley said. “And then future drawdowns will be determined by the president. And I’m not going to disclose specific numbers and what those are. The whole agreement and all of the drawdown plans are conditions-based, and I expect that we’ll have further discussions on the conditions and ensure that they warrant.”

“The key here is that we’re trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately, and to do it on terms that guarantee the safety of the U.S. vital national security interests that are at stake in Afghanistan,” he continued.

Milley gave the interview from his home in Virginia, as he continues quarantining after exposure to the coronavirus.

Trump last week sowed confusion about the U.S. plan in Afghanistan by tweeting that “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.”

The wording of the tweet made it unclear if Trump had actually ordered a withdrawal or was trying to appeal to voters in the final stretch of the presidential campaign by claiming he is fulfilling his promise to end so-called forever wars.

Further stoking confusion, the tweet came hours after national security adviser Robert O’Brien announced a drawdown to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan by early 2021.

Milley during the NPR interview dismissed O’Brien’s announcement as speculation in the first comments from a military official since the confusion last week.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I’m not going to engage in speculation,” Milley said. “I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president. And then when we get to the point where we have further discussions and further decisions, those will be appropriately made public.”

The U.S. military drew down to about 8,600 troops over the summer, in line with the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban. Trump and other administration officials have previously said the U.S. military is now in the process of lowering that number to about 4,500 by Election Day.

The U.S.-Taliban deal, 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. U.S. military officials have previously said the Taliban has not yet broken with al Qaeda.

Trump’s talk of a full withdrawal also followed negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which got underway last month after months of delay.

Asked about the effect a full withdrawal would have on those peace talks and security in Afghanistan, Milley said that would be part of his consideration in advising the president, but again refused to “speculate” on specifics.

“I don’t think, frankly, it would be appropriate — and I know you wouldn’t want me to — to speculate in an open forum on what I might advise the president on what those risks are,” Milley told NPR. “I think that I owe that advice to him and I owe it in the confines and privacy of discussions between his military adviser and himself.”

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal Donald Trump Mark Milley Robert O'Brien Trump tweets War in Afghanistan
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