Trump's decision to withdraw Afghanistan troops 'ridiculous': US officials

Trump's decision to withdraw Afghanistan troops by Christmas is 'ridiculous', US officials say
5 min read
09 October, 2020
American politicians expressed concern over the US president's aim to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Christmas, arguing that his timeframe is unrealistic.
Trump's declaration has caused a stir among US officials [Getty]

US President Donald Trump’s declaration that he will withdraw all troops US from Afghanistan by Christmas has been met with confusion from US politicians and military personnel, with some arguing such a move is premature.

"We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!" Trump wrote on Twitter late on Wednesday.

The Taliban welcomed the announcement as a "positive step" in implementing their February 29 agreement with the US that would see all foreign forces leave Afghanistan by May 2021.

In return, the Taliban promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used by trans-national extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda - the original reason given for the 2001 US invasion.
In a statement, the Taliban said they are "committed to the agreement, and want positive relations in the future with all countries, including the United States."

Multiple US officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive troop details, said they know of no plan for either new deadline. Instead, they pointed to comments on Wednesday by National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien, who told an audience in Las Vegas that "as of today, there are under 5,000 and that will go to 2,500 by early next year."

US officials said troop numbers have not yet been reduced to 4,500 but will hit that goal in November as planned. The military has also consistently said that counterterrorism troops would remain in Afghanistan for some time to deal with al-Qaeda and Islamic State threats.

A senior Trump administration official said Trump's tweet laid down a marker on US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, and since he is the commander in chief, the rest of the administration will follow his lead. The official also spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of troop withdrawals.

Other members of the military think the US president was being unrealistic.

"It’s October, so no – it’s ridiculous. It’s simply can’t happen,” Jason Dempsey, a former infantry officer who served in Afghanistan told the Guardian.

"We could make some superficial show of pulling out uniformed troops, but obviously we still have a very massive contractor presence, and we would need a uniformed headquarters to oversee the shutdown and withdrawal of everything we have in country."

"This is the last leverage the US had left in talks with the Taliban, and Trump is proposing to give it away for free," added Ashley Jackson, the director of the ODI’s Centre for the Study of Armed Groups.

This is not the first time, however, that Trump has upended military policies or troop withdrawal plans with an abrupt tweet, only to be persuaded to adjust his thinking or give the military more time. In Syria, the president's demands to withdraw all troops were slow-walked to give time to give time to Washington's Syrian Kurdish allies. The US still maintains a presence of less than 1,000 forces in Syria.

Even before Trump’s latest pronouncement, the White House had refused to allow US negotiators to base troop withdrawals on the signing of a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Instead, American diplomats and military officials were able to say only that withdrawals would be based on conditions on the ground, meaning a measurable reduction in Taliban attacks, rather than any resolution to the country’s long-running internal conflicts.

"What we need to see is that they’re not going to allow al-Qaeda to base there," said Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, in a September interview with NBC News. "And that has just not yet been demonstrated to my satisfaction."

McKenzie and other military officials have also said that the drawdown must be done 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 that somebody could use against us in another time and another place. So that’s actually a huge logistics effort and it is continuing now," McKenzie said last month.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, asked about Trump's comments on Thursday, did not say whether he had been alerted to the new deadlines. Instead, he said NATO and all allies will coordinate their efforts and "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."

America's exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was laid out in a February agreement Washington reached with the Taliban. That agreement said U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan in 18 months, provided the Taliban honoured a commitment to fight terrorist groups, with most attention seemingly focused on the Islamic State group's affiliate in the country.

The Taliban and the Afghan government-appointed negotiating team are holding peace talks in Doha, Qatar, but progress has been painfully slow.

Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met Thursday in Pakistan with Gen. Austin Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and Pakistan's Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qamar Jaaved Bajwa. Pakistan has helped shepherd the Taliban to the negotiating table and its role is seen as critical for lasting peace in Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has been keen to get both sides — particularly the Taliban — to sign on to a reduction in violence at least while the Qatar negotiations are underway and until a permanent cease-fire can be negotiated.

It's likely Miller and Khalilzad were seeking the help of Pakistan's powerful military to press the Taliban, who have insisted on fighting Afghan security forces even as talks are taking place. The insurgents have kept a promise from February not to attack US and NATO troops.

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