- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2019

President Trump muddied the waters this week on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan just as U.S. diplomats hold another round of crucial negotiations with the Taliban — and some regional experts say the mixed messages risk undercutting progress made over the past 17 years as Mr. Trump presses for a deal that would allow U.S. forces to come home.

In an interview with Fox News on Monday, Mr. Trump declared that “we’re down to about 9,000” American forces in Afghanistan. Defense Department officials confirmed to The Washington Times on Wednesday that the total figure remains about 14,000, though they said about 9,000 of those are in the country to train and advise Afghan security forces.

The rest, officials said, are providing counterterrorism support and fulfilling other missions. The president may have been referring solely to the 9,000 troops in the country for training purposes under the U.S.-led NATO Resolute Support Mission.

The confusion over troop numbers in Afghanistan, where the U.S. remains engaged in the longest military conflict in American history, has risen as the administration’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, meets with Taliban leaders in Qatar. Even as the Taliban continue to carry out horrific attacks across the country — including an assault Monday that wounded dozens of schoolchildren — the latest round of marathon talks center on the U.S. ultimately withdrawing its forces from the war-torn nation.

Analysts say Mr. Trump’s public comments, and the administration’s strategy as a whole, are encouraging further violence as the two sides scramble for an endgame advantage while doing little to establish lasting peace. The approach has unnerved the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which has largely watched from the sidelines as Mr. Khalilzad negotiates with senior Taliban leaders.

Mr. Trump’s approach reflects his long-expressed desire to scale back seemingly endless U.S. military commitments abroad, as well as the weariness of a U.S. electorate that sees little visible progress.

“On Afghanistan, Trump is Obama 2.0,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin. “Projecting weakness does not bring peace, and it does not lead to results favorable to the United States. He is encouraging insurgency and pulling the carpet out from under Afghanistan’s government and security forces.

“Why should any Afghan soldier fight to the death if they believe the U.S. is going to leave them hanging in the wind?” said Mr. Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Confusion over troop levels

Mr. Trump, who campaigned on ending wars abroad and bringing American troops home, has begun drawing down the number of U.S. forces inside Syria, and he has made no secret about wanting to do the same in Afghanistan.

“I’ve wanted to pull them out. And, you know, I have pulled a lot out. We were at 16,000. We’re down to about 9,000, which a lot of people don’t know,” Mr. Trump told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Monday.

“Look, I would like to just get out,” he said. “The problem is it just seems to be a lab for terrorists. … I call it the Harvard of terrorists.”

Mr. Trump said he favors leaving U.S. intelligence assets in the country but suggests that a full and complete American withdrawal is off the table.

The Pentagon said roughly 14,000 U.S. military personnel remain inside the country.

“We currently have approximately 9,000 service members under the Resolute Support mission to train and advise Afghan forces,” said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Defense Department spokeswoman. “Additional U.S. troops assigned to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan who provide support to the counterterrorism mission, the RS mission or both.”

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are meeting with Taliban leaders in Qatar for the latest in a series of high-level negotiations aimed at securing a comprehensive peace deal. Administration officials have been mostly mum on the progress of those talks, but Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said Wednesday that “80% to 90%” of the work is done.

“Spectacular progress made in this round,” he said, as quoted by the Al-Jazeera news network.

The key sticking point between the two sides remains the continued presence of U.S. troops. Washington has insisted that the Taliban agree to a cease-fire accord, establish security guarantees across the country, break ties with international terrorist groups and hold direct talks with the Afghan government before troop withdrawals begin.

The Taliban has steadfastly refused to negotiate with the Ghani government in Kabul. The group also has demanded that the U.S. agree to a strict timetable for the pullout of U.S. troops as a central pillar to any peace pact.

But critics say events of this week underscore the central flaw in negotiating with the Taliban. The group continues to perpetrate assaults across the country even as they hold talks with the U.S.

On Monday, the Taliban set off a car bomb in a crowded area of Kabul. The blast reportedly killed at least 16 people and wounded more than 100 others. More than 50 children were among the injured.

While the administration strongly condemned the attack, officials cast the incident against the broader backdrop of peace talks.

“We call on the Taliban to stop attacking civilians. Afghans yearn for peace and deserve an end to these senseless acts of violence,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement just after the attack. “Today’s indiscriminate assault, which caused injuries to children at school, was particularly barbarous. It serves as a stark reminder of what is at stake in the peace process and why we remain committed to helping those Afghans who seek a peaceful future for their country.”

Some analysts argue that the incident should be another reminder that the Taliban cannot be trusted to live up to their word.

“If the Taliban attack the Afghan government, U.S. forces, or children, then it’s time to close their office in Qatar and make Taliban leaders suffer, wherever they may be,” said Mr. Rubin, the AEI scholar.

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