ISLAMABAD – The U.S. military was blindsided Thursday by President Donald Trump's assertion that all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, with U.S. officials saying they are not aware of such a plan and have gotten no actual order to accelerate the more gradual pullout they've been executing.
Trump's comments, laid out in a confusing progression of comments and a tweet, alarmed Pentagon and State officials who fear that putting a definitive date on troop withdrawal could undercut negotiations to finalize a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. They also fear a hasty withdrawal could force the U.S. to leave behind sensitive military equipment. And they continue to stress that the Taliban has still not met requirements to reduce violence against the Afghans, a key element of the U.S. withdrawal plan.
The Taliban welcomed Trump's announcements, which started with a tweet Wednesday saying “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.” He reinforced early withdrawal plans Thursday morning, in a Fox Business Channel interview that understated the number of troops currently in Afghanistan.
“We’re down to 4,000 troops in Afghanistan. I’ll have them home by the end of the year. They’re coming home, you know, as we speak. Nineteen years is enough. They’re acting as policemen, OK? They’re not acting as troops," Trump said.
Multiple U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive troop details, said they know of no plan for either new deadline. Instead, they pointed to comments 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.”
U.S. 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-Qaida and Islamic State threats.
A senior Trump administration official said Trump, with his tweet, laid down a marker Wednesday on U.S. 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.
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 to execute a more deliberate approach. Trump's demand to pull all troops out of Syria, for example, was eventually changed, and there are still less than 1,000 forces there.
Even before Trump’s latest pronouncement, the White House has refused to allow U.S. 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-Qaida to base there,” said Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. 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 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 honored a commitment to fight terrorist groups, with most attention seemingly focused on the Islamic State group's affiliate in the country.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed welcomed Trump's tweet as a positive step for the implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. The Taliban, he said, are “committed to the contents of the agreement and hope for good and positive relations with all countries, including the U.S., in the future.”
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 U.S. 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 U.S. and NATO troops.
Gannon reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Matthew Lee in Washington and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.