The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Trump promises a swift troop exit from Afghanistan, confusion grows about U.S. stance

President Trump with Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and U.S. troops at a Thanksgiving dinner event during a surprise visit at Bagram air base in Afghanistan in 2019.
President Trump with Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and U.S. troops at a Thanksgiving dinner event during a surprise visit at Bagram air base in Afghanistan in 2019. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
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President Trump’s promise to abruptly pull all U.S. troops from Afghanistan generated confusion Thursday, as the Pentagon indicated it had received no orders to alter plans for a conditions-based withdrawal and Afghan negotiators voiced concern that a hasty exit would intensify challenges to peace talks.

The president’s suggestion on Twitter that thousands of troops would depart within less than three months injected a new element of uncertainty into efforts by diplomats and military officials to usher nascent peace negotiations toward a potential settlement ending the nearly two-decade conflict.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday evening.

It was not immediately clear whether the president’s pronouncement signaled a lasting change in policy or constituted an appeal to voters weeks before the Nov. 3 election. Bringing back troops from costly overseas wars has been a central element of Trump’s foreign policy since before his election in 2016, and Afghanistan, now America’s longest conflict, has figured chief among them.

A defense official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said the Pentagon has not yet received any orders to accelerate the troop reduction.

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Laurel Miller, a former top diplomat who now serves as director of the International Crisis Group’s Asia program, said the announcement of an imminent departure was likely to undercut diplomats supporting talks between Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, now seen as the only viable option for ending the war.

“It’s very strange indeed to have the president of the United States say something out loud and then have all the rest of us wondering if it really means anything,” she said.

A sudden withdrawal, she continued, “makes no sense in terms of U.S. national security or good negotiating practice. It only makes sense in a political context if you think that’s a selling point to voters.”

A scramble by officials to ascertain the meaning of Trump’s Twitter statement is a now-familiar dynamic after four years in which the president has made unexpected foreign policy announcements related to topics including the U.S. posture toward NATO and the military presence in Syria.

In Afghanistan, such a move would represent a significant departure from a separate deal the Trump administration struck earlier this year with the Taliban, in which U.S. officials said they would remove all forces from Afghanistan by next May if the militants complied with certain conditions, including a reduction in violence and the severing of all relations with al-Qaeda militants.

The Pentagon has declined to give a precise number for the current U.S. force in Afghanistan, but it is expected to hit 4,500 next month.

Afghan government officials have said they see no evidence that the Taliban has broken with al-Qaeda, and the level of violence has sharply increased in the country in recent months.

The Taliban applauded Trump’s tweet as “a very positive step as part of the implementation of the agreement between the Islamic Emirate and the United States,” according to a statement by spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. He said the Taliban would fulfill its “commitments” under the deal.

But an Afghan official in Doha briefed on the talks said the tweet “certainly makes the Afghan Republic’s job more difficult.” He said it is likely to make Taliban negotiators “more arrogant” and less willing to compromise on issues concerning human rights and civil liberties.

Adding to the confusion, Trump’s tweet appeared only hours after his national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, said the U.S. force would be reduced to around 2,500 early next year. It was not immediately clear whether this plan was the same one Trump referenced.

“Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement. . . . We think Americans need to come home,” O’Brien said in a speech in Las Vegas at the University of Nevada, Reuters reported.

Both statements appear to contradict repeated promises by senior diplomats and military officials linking a full withdrawal to conditions on the ground, even though the scenarios that might prompt Washington to abandon its withdrawal plans have not all been spelled out.

Last week, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the United States was committed to withdrawing under the February U.S.-Taliban agreement. “But if the conditions are not right, we don’t have to withdraw,” he said in an interview with NPR.

In a separate interview with PBS, Khalilzad acknowledged that the Taliban had not yet broken with al-Qaeda. “What we do is contingent, in terms of reduction of forces, on what they do. We have seen progress in terms of delivering on the commitment that they have made on terrorism, but that’s unfinished business,” he said.

Asked whether he was under pressure from the White House to show progress before the presidential election, Khalilzad said, “No, I’m not.”

A spokesperson for the Defense Department referred questions about Trump’s remark to the White House. But a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under White House rules, said the president’s tweet “really laid down a marker tonight, and he’s the commander in chief and we all follow his lead.”

The Afghan official said he expected Trump’s announcement would further slow progress in the talks, which have appeared deadlocked multiple times in recent weeks over ground rules.

Omar Zakhilwal, a former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, said Trump’s remark would “strengthen” the position of the Taliban in Doha. He said it should also “make the Afghan government realize that this is for real and it should push them to take [a U.S. withdrawal] more seriously.”

U.S. support for the Afghan government is considered a key element of leverage for Kabul’s negotiating team. Afghan forces continue to struggle, and many local officials have previously warned that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal could further destabilize the country.

U.S. military officials meanwhile have long signaled that, despite what is stated in the U.S.-Taliban deal, they hope to secure permission for a small continued counterterrorism presence.

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has said he would review the situation if elected but in general favors only small deployments for counterterrorism purposes.

“He distinguishes between the open-ended deployment of large standing forces throughout the world — which he thinks does not make sense” and “a relatively small number of predominately special operators who can leverage a far greater number of local forces” to take on terrorism threats, a Biden adviser said.

Long critical of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Trump said in May that the United States “never really fought to win” the conflict in which more than 2,000 American troops have died. No U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed in February.

George reported from Dubai.