Troop Withdrawal not Moving as Quickly as Trump Wants: US Defence Secretary

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said it was unlikely that all American troops would be out of Afghanistan by early November. On Tuesday, senior military officials said they are preparing plans to for a scenario where more than 8,000 troops from Afghanistan would be back stateside by early November.

Esper said that was one of the options going forward, but unlikely at this point to withdraw completely within six months. “It’s proven not to move as quickly as we’d prefer,” he told the Military Times. They still plan to bring down troop levels to 8,600 by July.

“I don’t put a timeline on it. We have a timeline of May of next year, but that timeline was premised on everything moving at a set pace.”

These comments came a day after President Donald Trump restated his desire for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan “as soon as is reasonable” to end the longest war America has ever fought. Since his campaigning days, Trump has said he wants to end the U.S.’s wars and bring troops back home. In the White House, he has made withdrawal from Afghanistan a centrepiece of his foreign policy.

Pentagon officials started working on different scenarios following Trump’s comments. The November timeline in keeping with the U.S. Presidential Elections, reflected an understanding among the officials, that Trump might prefer that.

Military experts have said they would advise Trump from withdrawing too early before any deal is struck in Afghanistan.

Ground situation in Afghanistan

Peace talks have sputtered to a start between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Progress has been slow as the Afghan government has been battling the Coronavirus pandemic and trying to negotiate with the Taliban at the same time.

Trump has paid attention, somewhat, to what has been happening in Afghanistan. He had called off a secret meeting in 2019 September with Taliban leaders after they took responsibility for a Kabul suicide bombing. The current U.S.-led talks follow the same ideals.

The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has been shuttling between Doha, where the Taliban’s political wing resides, and Kabul, to broker a peace deal. The three-day Eid ceasefire agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government has renewed hopes of them reaching some consensus. Both sides also agreed to exchange prisoners. If the ceasefire holds, the U.S. could hope the withdrawal of troops would ramp up.

“Right now we’re encouraged by the steps we see happening in Afghanistan,” Mark Esper, the Defence Secretary said. “That’ll be a good step forward.”

U.S. is Ahead of Schedule in Withdrawal

Reports indicate the U.S. is already ahead of their July deadline of coming down to 8,600 troops on the ground in Afghanistan. They will likely reach that target in early June, sources told Reuters.

Esper said beyond that deadline, things are very much undecided. According to the Taliban peace deal struck in February, a key provision was the U.S.’s commitment to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan within 12 to 14 months.

“The most important thing right now is that Afghans sit down with Afghans and figure out the way forward,” said Esper.

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