- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2019

The U.S. will not unilaterally pull its forces from Afghanistan and any drawdown will be done in close consultation with NATO allies, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Thursday in comments that raise questions about the Trump administration’s strategy to exit a war zone in which it’s operated for 17 years.

Speaking to reporters after a meeting with NATO and European leaders in Brussels, Mr. Shanahan seemed to shoot down reports that President Trump plans to pull about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan in the immediate future. Mr. Trump in his State of the Union address last week decried America’s “endless wars” and appeared to be laying the groundwork for a withdrawal.

But Mr. Shanahan said the strategy moving forward is to put maximum military pressure on the Taliban to continue peace negotiations with the Afghan government. A key part of that pressure centers on keeping a military presence in Afghanistan until a formal peace deal is reached.

“There will be no unilateral troop reductions,” Mr. Shanahan said. “That was one of the messages: It will be coordinated. We’re together.”

Any drawdown, he said, will be done in close consultation with NATO.

“What we talked about was, how do we double down on support for Afghan national defense and security forces to put even more pressure on the Taliban,” Mr. Shanahan said of his discussions with NATO leaders.

NATO leaders said they’ve had no talks about troop withdrawals and so far have not been told to prepare for a partial or full drawdown.

“I don’t have the direction to do it, or the guidance to do it, or the decision to drive it,” said U.S. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO’s top military officer.

The administration in recent weeks has held marathon peace talks with Taliban leaders. The Taliban, which controlled the country and offered safe haven to al Qaeda leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, so far has refused to hold direct talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and has yet to agree to any meaningful ceasefire.

The removal of American troops from Afghanistan is, from the Taliban’s perspective, a central part of any future deal.

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