Trump adviser shoots back at top general: ‘I wasn’t speculating’ on Afghanistan troop levels

National security adviser Robert O’Brien insisted Friday that President Trump has ordered a drawdown in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops by early next year, shooting back at criticism from the top general in the military.

“I can guarantee you that’s the plan of the president of the United States,” O’Brien said in a virtual event hosted by the Aspen Security Forum. “That’s the order of the commander in chief. That’s not speculation.”

“I staff the president of the United States, so it’s not my practice to speculate,” O’Brien added later in the event. “So other people can interpret that what I say is speculation or not, but I wasn’t speculating then, I wasn’t speculating today. And so when I’m speaking, I’m speaking for the president. And I think that’s what the Pentagon is moving out and doing.”

O’Brien was responding to comments earlier in the week from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who dismissed the national security adviser’s announcement last week about the drawdown as speculation.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I’m not going to engage in speculation,” Milley told NPR in an interview.

The back-and-forth comes as Trump has sowed confusion around his plans for Afghanistan.

The U.S. military is in the process of drawing down to 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, a target Trump and other administration officials have said will be hit by Election Day.

Last week in a speech, O’Brien announced a drawdown to 2,500 troops by early 2021. But hours later, Trump sent a tweet indicating he wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this year.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas,” Trump tweeted.

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.

On Friday, O’Brien framed Trump’s tweet as an aspiration, but suggested it is not yet an order.

“I think what the president was doing is he was expressing the same desire that I think every president since the Revolutionary War has said,” O’Brien said. “Whenever we’re at war, whether it was Revolutionary War or the Civil War or World War I or World War II, all presidents, all G.I.s want the troops home by Christmas.”

“Ultimately, if these inter-Afghan negotiations could work out well, there’d be nothing greater than to have our troops home by Christmas,” he added. “We’re on a path right now that looks like about 4,500 this fall and a smaller number in January and February. But if the conditions permit it, look, we’d love to get people out earlier, and I think that’s the desire that the president was expressing.”

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.

The Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban, 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.

–Updated at 11:43 a.m.

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

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