Thursday 22 October 2020 - 13:03

White House Leans on Pentagon to Fulfill Trump’s Afghanistan Pledge

Story Code : 893475
White House Leans on Pentagon to Fulfill Trump’s Afghanistan Pledge
National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said that the Pentagon is “executing” a White House order to reduce the US troop presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year, brushing aside comments by the nation’s top military officer that have cast doubt on the new directive, POLITICO reported.

“We have a plan that’s been in place for some time going to 4,500 by this month, and being somewhere around 2,500 to 2,800 in early 2021," O’Brien stated in an interview as he traveled back to the US following meetings in Brazil.

While he noted that the drawdown is “conditions-based”, he stressed that “that’s where the president wants to be … that’s what the Pentagon is executing”.

The comments mark the latest in an unusually public back-and-forth between O’Brien and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who told NPR last week that reductions beyond the near-term 4,500 number must be made based on the security situation in the country and that O’Brien was engaging in “speculation” by discussing specifics beyond that.

They also come as the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan warns that a “distressingly high” level of violence could derail peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which is one of the conditions for a complete US withdrawal by May 2021.

The violence is also stoking concerns among military planners who believe the withdrawal timeline O’Brien laid out is too fast, according to two senior US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.

Officers at US Central Command believe the situation in Afghanistan is still too volatile to go below 4,500, and that the Taliban are not negotiating in good faith with the Afghan government, one of the officials announced.

Still, the White House has relayed to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior DoD leaders through a series of meetings that the president wants the troop level to drop by another 2,000 by early next year, O’Brien added.

This puts O’Brien at odds with Milley, who told NPR last week "I think that Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I'm not going to engage in speculation", about the timeline for withdrawal. Milley stated that the troop withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground and not dates on the calendar.

Asked directly about Milley’s comments, O’Brien said, “I’m not going to get into a public debate with General Milley,” who he called “a friend” and “a great American.”

“I really can’t comment on what General Milley was saying. I wasn’t in the interview, I didn’t read the whole thing,” O’Brien continued, adding, “All I can tell you is what I understand the plan is, and I understand the Pentagon is executing the plan. I talked to Secretary Esper and I think we are all on the same page.”

Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman released a statement saying the Pentagon is following through with the drawdown.

“DoD is implementing the president’s direction regarding a conditions-based withdrawal from Afghanistan that will advance the peace process, protect our forces and prevent enduring threats to the homeland,” Hoffman added.

Hoffman noted the department’s guidance to go from 4,500 in November to zero in May of next year as laid out in the peace agreement.

But when pressed specifically on whether the Pentagon was on board with drawing down to 2,500 troops by January as laid out by O’Brien, Hoffman declined to comment.

Spokespeople for the Joint Chiefs and US Central Command also declined repeated requests for comment on the January goal.

On Sunday, at least 12 civilians were killed and more than 100 people wounded after a car bomb exploded outside a police headquarters in Afghanistan’s Western province of Ghor. That same day, the Taliban accused Washington of violating their February agreement by conducting airstrikes in Helmand and Farah, a claim US Forces Afghanistan immediately rejected.

US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the developments are putting the peace process in danger.

“The belief that says violence must escalate to win concessions at the negotiating table is very risky,” Khalilzad tweeted Monday, adding, “Such an approach can undermine the peace process and repeats past miscalculations by Afghan leaders.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US Ambassador to NATO, said Wednesday that the US would look to draw down more troops in the future, but "certainly the conditions have not been met at this time."

"We are very concerned with the violence that the Taliban has been producing in violation of the spirit of the agreement they made with the US, if not the letter of that agreement," Hutchison stated, adding, "We are calling for a ceasefire, or a significant reduction in violence, which we have not seen."

O’Brien also condemned the violence, saying the US has communicated its concern to both the Taliban and the Afghan government. However, he noted that America has made “tremendous sacrifices in blood and treasure” for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, another country where Trump has reduced the US military presence, and now needs to focus “on defending the American people”.

“I think the American people want us to focus on the existential threats, what I call the generational threats in our country,” O’Brien continued, adding, “The world that we live in has changed and it’s not a unipolar world where America can dictate and has the luxury of fighting these smaller wars for endless amounts of time and spending endless amounts of money.”

O’Brien also noted that thousands of NATO and coalition forces will continue to augment the US presence in Afghanistan even after the drawdown.

Asked whether announcing a further drawdown just weeks before the election was politically motivated, O’Brien stated Trump campaigned on getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued withdrawal should not come as a surprise.

Ending conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and pivoting to defending the homeland as well as countering China and Russia will be part of Trump’s “legacy”, O’Brien said, noting that Trump is the only president since Ronald Reagan who hasn’t started a new conflict.

O’Brien also confirmed a recent Bloomberg News report that the administration is also in talks to withdraw 500 to 700 special operations forces stationed in Somalia focused on fighting terrorists.

“To the extent that it’s political — because that’s a promise the president made when he ran for election and unlike many other politicians, whether it’s moving the embassy to Jerusalem or cutting taxes, the president has actually kept the promises he’s made to the American people,” O’Brien announced, adding, “We’re going to draw down carefully and safely and do our best to bring peace to those countries and end those endless wars.”