- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2020

The Pentagon is pushing back at President Trump’s recent campaign trail claim that all American troops could be out of Afghanistan by Christmas, fueling fresh questions about the war zone exit plan at a moment when U.S. forces continue to engage in direct clashes with an emboldened Taliban.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused over the weekend to confirm the rapid withdrawal timeline Mr. Trump laid out in an unexpected Twitter post last week. Gen. Milley also wouldn’t comment directly on National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s recent pledge that the U.S. troop number will be down to 2,500 by early next year.

In an interview with NPR that aired Monday, Gen. Milley said only that the U.S. is in the process of cutting its force to about 4,500 service members, down from the roughly 12,000 American forces stationed in Afghanistan at the start of 2020.

“We have a plan, a series of responsible drawdown options that has been briefed to the president. I’m not going to go into specific numbers for the future,” the Joint Chiefs chairman said. “Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I’m not going to engage in speculation.”

The lack of a singular message on the Afghanistan withdrawal plan, the central piece of a landmark peace deal struck in February between the Taliban and Trump administration, is reflective of what analysts have long described as an inherent conflict between Washington’s long-term national security priorities and the political imperatives of the moment.

Locked in a tight race with Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden and a COVID-19 diagnosis that shook the country, Mr. Trump is seeking to show voters that he hasn’t forgotten his vow to stop “endless wars” in the Middle East and bring American troops back home. That promise was central to his election in 2016 and has been a cornerstone of his Middle East policy for the past four years.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas,” the president tweeted last week in comments that drew praise from the Taliban, which have tried for years to drive the U.S. military out of the country.

The president has simultaneously sought to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq, where Iran-backed militias have offered a truce in recent days in exchange for a full U.S. troop pullout.

But there is deep concern that an American withdrawal from either country could lead to a power vacuum that destabilizes the region and, in a worst-case scenario, allows Islamic extremists to find new footholds. Some critics charge that a stable Afghanistan — one free of rampant bloodshed and the influence of terrorist groups, and one capable of delivering real opportunity to its citizenry, including women — has never been as important to the president as the political benefits of leaving.

“Trump simply wants out. He doesn’t care about or believe in the consequences,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“A complete withdrawal would be bad, but what is inexcusable is that Trump and [U.S. envoy for Afghan peace negotiations Zalmay] Khalilzad are empowering the Taliban on the way out. If the goal was precipitous withdrawal, fine,” said Mr. Rubin. “Just don’t kneecap the Afghan government and Afghan people on the way out by legitimizing the Taliban.”

The administration vehemently denies such criticism and argues that a secure, stable Afghanistan free from extremists is a top priority.

Undermining peace

As White House and Pentagon leaders publicly debate an exit strategy, U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan are still fighting.

American units over the past two days have conducted “targeted strikes” to slow a Taliban advance on Afghanistan’s Helmand province and to protect Afghan National Security Forces defending the area, Pentagon officials said. Taliban attacks have continued even after the group held historic face-to-face talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The negotiations are aimed at securing a lasting, permanent cease-fire.

U.S. military officials say continued Taliban attacks, such as the Helmand offensive, make a cease-fire much less likely.

“The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country. It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks,” U.S. Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said in a statement Monday.

Gen. Miller has seen Taliban violence firsthand. In October 2018, less than two months after taking control of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he survived an attack by Taliban gunmen on a Kandahar compound that claimed the life of the province’s top police official. That brazen assault was just one example of the kind of insurgent violence that has become commonplace during the two decades of U.S. involvement in the country.

U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan since October 2001, when President George W. Bush ordered an American invasion to topple the Taliban and root out al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The Bush and Obama administrations were unable to find a way out, though President Obama drastically reduced the American military footprint after a surge in U.S. troop numbers early in his tenure.

At its peak in 2011, roughly 100,000 American troops were in Afghanistan. The figure dropped to fewer than 9,000 by the time Mr. Obama left office.

Against that backdrop, the Trump administration has embraced a course of unprecedented diplomacy, dispatching Mr. Khalilzad to lead direct negotiations with the Taliban. The talks led to the historic peace pact in February, which laid the groundwork for the U.S. withdrawal in exchange for promises that the Taliban would no longer engage in violence and would never again allow the country to be a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.

The agreement also laid out the conditions for prisoner swaps between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

It remains unclear whether the Taliban are capable or willing to hold up their end of the deal. A recent Pentagon report said remote areas of Afghanistan remain home to “terrorist sanctuaries” and some Taliban members routinely cooperate with al Qaeda and other extremist elements.

Some specialists say the U.S. is making a grave error by empowering the Taliban while assuming they will break all ties with al Qaeda.

“The U.S. could withdraw from Afghanistan without endorsing the Taliban as its counterterrorism partner,” Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in a recent piece for The Dispatch.

“If the Taliban doesn’t betray al-Qaeda, and there is no evidence that it has or will, then the U.S. is effectively lying on the Taliban’s behalf,” he wrote. “The U.S. is pretending that the Taliban is willing to do what it has never actually done — for no good reason. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban have only granted it legitimacy as a governing actor.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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