U.S. military blindsided by Trump's new Afghan troop withdrawal plan
Trump's comments alarmed Pentagon officials, were welcomed by Taliban
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 Department 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 from national security adviser Robert O'Brien, in which he said the U.S. had less than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan currently and would go down to 2,500 by early 2021.
"Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement.… It's going to be slow progress. It's going to be hard progress, but we think it's a necessary step — we think Americans need to come home," O'Brien told an event at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The discrepancy between the Trump and O'Brien comments has yet to be clarified by the administration.
America's exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was laid out in an agreement Washington reached with the Taliban in February. However, 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 ISIS group's affiliate in the country.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed said Trump's statement was welcome, and he considered it a positive step for the implementation of the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
The Taliban 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," he said.
Progress of talks unclear
Trump's surprise tweet late Wednesday came as the Taliban and the Afghan government-appointed negotiating team are holding historic peace talks in Doha, Qatar.
Those talks have been painfully slow as both sides have become bogged down on the intricacies of how they would go forward with reaching an agreement. Weeks have been spent discussing Islamic jurisprudence and how it will impact negotiations.
Still, both sides have stayed at the negotiating table even as Washington's peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week returned to the region. Little information of substance has emerged from the talks.
The Taliban have never detailed the commitments it made in the February peace agreement with the U.S., and Washington has refused to give details, citing security concerns.
Even as the warring sides meet in Doha to map out what a post-conflict Afghanistan might look like, Washington and NATO have already begun reducing their troop numbers. Washington had an estimated 13,000 troops in Afghanistan when it signed the agreement with the Taliban on Feb. 29.
This is not the first time Trump has undercut the Pentagon with announcements about troop strength in Afghanistan. He previously had publicly announced American troop strength without vetting by the Pentagon, which has not yet responded to Trump's tweet.
Trump has long promised to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and the agreement with the Taliban does not require the two Afghan sides reach a deal before Washington withdraws.
With files from CBC News and Reuters