President Donald Trump’s tweet that all American troops in Afghanistan might be home by Christmas reiterated his campaign promise as he stood for re-election, but the Pentagon has differing views.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview with NPR on Sunday, said that the troops withdrawal plans remained based on the conditions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
“We have a plan, a series of responsible drawdown options that has been briefed to the president. I’m not going to go into specific numbers for the future,” he told the radio show.
“But we have a responsible plan to end the war with U.S. interests clearly in mind.”
He emphasised that the U.S. withdrawal would be done responsibly and in keeping with the February agreement signed in Doha.
Milley pointed that in early 2020, there were around 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the current plans are moving towards a “responsible, deliberate drawdown” to about 4,500 by November.
“And then future drawdowns will be determined by the president… 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 military chief told NPR.
“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.”
This emphasis on the words “responsible” and “deliberate” with the phrase “conditions-based” did not go unnoticed, and Milley was asked if the drawdown timetable would be based on condition on the ground or arbitrary terms like “end of the year” or “Christmas.”
Milley responded that the instruction had always been to follow the conditions.
“Well, that has always been our instructions. That’s always been the agreement. That was the decision of the president on a conditions-based withdrawal.”
He referred to the conditions of the Feb. 28 agreement with the Taliban – entering the Afghan negotiations, not attacking U.S. forces, not conducting major attacks in the major urban areas of Afghanistan, and severing ties with Al Qaeda among others.
“So we’re monitoring all of those conditions closely. And we’re, we the military, are giving our best military advice on those conditions so that the president can make an informed, deliberate, responsible decision,” he told NPR.
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He was also asked if the Taliban were meeting the conditions of the reduction in violence, and he called it relative.
“In terms of violence, for example, if you start measuring the violence from, call it four or five months ago, has there been a significant reduction in violence? Answer: not significant. If you measure it from two to three years ago or five years ago, there has been a significant reduction in violence,” he told NPR.
Trump not really reducing American troop presence
The New York Times said the Trump’s campaign talks of bringing troops home does not match their military actions.
While he has made verbal calls for bringing pulling out American soldiers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – thousands more have been deployed to the Persian Gulf in response to the growing tensions with Iran. American also continues to maintain major military bases in Qatar and Bahrain.
“The missing piece here is that tens of thousands of forces are deployed all across the Middle East, supporting ongoing operations in the region and beyond,” Dana Stroul, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told the New York Times.
“The president has even increased the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia. None of those forces have been withdrawn over the course of his term. His rhetoric does not match the reality of U.S. forces deployed across the Middle East today.”
Still, Trump maintains that he has made major achievements by not starting a single war during his tenure.
“I’m bringing our troops back from Afghanistan. I’m bringing our troops back from Iraq. We’re almost out of almost every place,” he said at a townhall in September.
The ground reality though is that he now presides over about 10,000 ground troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined, only slightly less than the number he inherited at the end of the Obama administration. Deployments ordered by Trump caused that number to rise as high as 26,000 by late 2017, according to a Pentagon report, before falling steadily in recent months.
The White House has not made any official comment regarding Trump’s latest tweet giving a Christmas deadline, but a senior administration official speaking to the New York Times said that Trump had made a clear statement and that the government was obliged to carry out the commander in chief’s wishes.
Senior military officials, however, say they have received no formal orders to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond 4,500 by the end of November.