Adviser: Trump tweet about Afghanistan withdrawal was a wish

Elias Hubbard
October 17, 2020

Confusion about troop withdrawals from America's longest war - an emotional topic for the troops and their families - began October 7, when Trump tweeted that "we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas".

The future of the United States military's involvement in Afghanistan remains clouded in uncertainty following contradictory comments from senior members of the administration.

The Pentagon has not yet responded to questions about O'Brien's comments. He first did so on October 7, in a speech in Las Vegas.

Seeking to clarify a series of confusing statements about the American footprint in Afghanistan, Robert O'Brien appeared to take a shot at Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley in recent days said that the U.S.is executing a plan to reduce the number of troops to 4,500 in November, but talk of any further reduction would be "speculation".

"I think that Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they fit", Milley told NPR in an October 11 interview. This complex scenario sheds light on the fact that withdrawing troops from Afghanistan may turn out to be a sensitive matter even for the U.S., and therefore should not be used as a tool to boost the approval ratings of the United States presidential candidates. "That has been suggested by some that that's speculation".

National security adviser Robert O'Brien at a press briefing at the White House on August 13.

Trump's original tweet about Christmas alarmed Pentagon and State Department officials who fear that putting a definitive date on troop withdrawal could undercut negotiations to finalize ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of Afghan society, including the current Afghan government.

Trump's tweet created the impression that the administration's senior figures were not on the same page regarding Afghanistan policy.

"I think what the President was doing is he was expressing the same desire that I think every president since the Revolutionary War has said", O'Brien explained Friday, saying, "we want the troops home by Christmas". "I'm not going to go into specific numbers for the future", Gen. Milley told NPR in an interview Monday. A spokesperson for the White House had no comment. But before the United States has to make any further cuts, the deal requires the Taliban to end all ties with al-Qaida and ensure that Afghanistan can not be used as a haven from which to threaten the United States and its allies. "It's a conditions-based plan", he said. "We're continuing to monitor those conditions".

Conditions on the ground appeared to be further deteriorating in recent days as the Taliban launched a major military offensive against the Afghan government in the capital of Helmand Province in the country's south despite ongoing peace talks in Qatar, an attack that prompted USA military aircraft to carry out a series of airstrikes against Taliban fighters in recent days. But in his remarks Friday, O'Brien made no mention of these conditions, leaving unclear whether they still figured in the Trump administration's thinking as it plans a withdrawal from the country.

President Trump, with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, next to Ghani at right, addresses members of the military during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, on November 28, 2019. Otherwise, the Afghan president's spokesperson said earlier this week, "What does it bring Afghanistan?"

Defense officials insist there are no plans to have all troops home from Afghanistan by the holidays or the end of the year. "If the conditions permit it look we would love to get people out earlier and I think that's the desire the president was expressing".

As peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government amble on, Afghan government officials have more openly argued the militant group is not interested in peace and US forces should stay. And they say they have not seen that yet.

"The disarray at top levels of the administration and the President's push to withdraw troops because of the election are key reasons the Taliban continues its campaign of violence, ignoring the US-Taliban agreement terms", said former Pentagon spokesman and retired US Marine Corps Col. David Lapan.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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