Trump Wants Troops in Afghanistan Home by Election Day. The Pentagon Is Drawing Up Plans.
The New York Times · by Thomas Gibbons-Neff · May 26, 2020
President Trump has repeatedly voiced a desire to leave Afghanistan sooner than the timeline laid out in the Feb. 29 peace agreement. He may want to campaign on bringing home every soldier.
American troops during a visit last year by President Trump to Bagram air base outside Kabul.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Senior military officials are set to brief President Trump in the coming days on options for pulling all American troops out of Afghanistan, with one possible timeline for withdrawing forces before the presidential election, according to officials with knowledge of the plans.
The proposal for a complete withdrawal by November reflects an understanding among military commanders that such a timeline may be Mr. Trump’s preferred option.
But they plan to propose, and to advocate, a slower withdrawal schedule, officials said.
The move is part of the Pentagon’s attempt to avoid another situation like the one in December 2018 and again in October 2019, when Mr. Trump surprised military officials by ordering the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Diplomatic chaos and violence followed, and the president subsequently modified each announcement. American troops remain in Syria, although in smaller numbers.
Senior military officials believe a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan would effectively doom the peace deal reached this year with the Taliban.
In recent months, Mr. Trump has repeatedly voiced a desire to leave Afghanistan sooner than the timeline laid out in the Feb. 29 peace agreement with the Taliban, which stipulated U.S. troops would leave in 12 to 14 months if the insurgent group met certain conditions.
The Pentagon is expected to try to persuade a commander in chief who has made clear his desire to end America’s involvement in what he has criticized as “endless wars” — and who has regularly surprised the military with his decisions.
This article is based on conversations with five officials familiar with the debate over the troop withdrawal. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations were intended to be private.
The Pentagon is set to lay out multiple options in the meeting with Mr. Trump.
One would give Mr. Trump the option of pulling all forces from the country before Election Day. But the Pentagon has other options that would withdraw forces more slowly, with one plan sticking close to the current timeline that would keep American forces in the country until May 2021.
Senior officials believe the president may be able to be persuaded that protecting the peace agreement, which his administration sponsored and supports, will require a slower drawdown of forces, to give the Taliban an incentive to reduce attacks.
Defense Department officials are also arguing to the White House that they cannot yet guarantee that Afghanistan will not again become a haven for attacks against the United States. Arguably the only clear-cut condition of the February deal, outlined in one of the secret annexes, is that the Taliban must publicly renounce the Islamic State and Al Qaeda before the full troop withdrawal begins.
There are currently fewer than 12,000 troops in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led mission in the country is in the process of drawing down to 8,600 troops as part of the February agreement. This smaller American contingent will rely heavily on Special Operations forces and joint United States-Afghan cells, known as “regional targeting teams,” that are focused on counterterrorism missions across the country.
“Any reduction under 8,600 U.S. troops will be conditions-based after the U.S. government assesses the security environment and the Taliban’s compliance with the agreement, and in coordination with our NATO allies and partners,” Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
Another factor that has contributed to Mr. Trump’s desire for an early withdrawal is the coronavirus and its unchecked spread throughout Afghanistan after it crossed over the country’s western border from Iran.
The Pentagon believes that at least 50 percent of Afghan security forces most likely have the virus, meaning that any training and joint operations between United States and Afghan forces have been paused, halting a key pillar of the American war effort, especially against Islamic State enclaves in the country’s east. But airstrikes against the group still continue.
As part of the peace agreement, the U.S. military is shutting several bases. But the spread of the coronavirus has also accelerated the closing of smaller Special Operations outposts used by the elite units while operating alongside their Afghan counterparts.
In a statement on Saturday, the Taliban declared a temporary cease-fire for the three days of the Islamic festival Eid al-Fitr, which started on Sunday and marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of daytime fasting.
The Afghan government followed, declaring a cessation of fighting even though officials had recently declared that they were restarting offensive operations after waves of Taliban attacks had killed hundreds of security forces after the February agreement. Sunday’s cease-fire is the second of the entire war. The first, widely praised on all sides and in the international community, was in 2018, also during Eid.
“This development offers the opportunity to accelerate the peace process,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the United States envoy for Afghan peace, said in a statement. “Other positive steps should immediately follow: the release of remaining prisoners as specified in the U.S.-Taliban agreement by both sides, no returning to high levels of violence, and an agreement on a new date for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
The exchange of 6,000 prisoners was one of the first sticking points after the United States-Taliban deal, as it all but forced the Kabul government to release Taliban prisoners even though it was not a signatory of the agreement.
Top American officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have pressured President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan to release the prisoners in the hopes that it would pave the way for the Afghan government to negotiate with the Taliban. Mr. Ghani has ordered their release in a series of groups, as has the Taliban, but after the announced cease-fire, Mr. Ghani pledged to release up to 2,000 more in an attempt to use the three-day cease-fire as a reset for a peace deal that was on the verge of falling apart.
On Tuesday, the Afghan government released 900 Taliban prisoners, the largest in one day since the slow process of prisoner release started and in what Afghan officials described a “good will” move in the hopes the cease-fire could be extended before direct negotiations.
During the closing days of the Obama administration, the Pentagon was also pressing the White House to slow its planned drawdown.
President Barack Obama had been intent on ending the long war in Afghanistan, but the military thought it precipitous. Commanders argued that removing troops would threaten what little progress had been made after years of prolonged fighting, but officials also acknowledged the pause would give the a new president time to reassess options. In October 2015, Mr. Obama halted his drawdown. Mr. Trump and America’s NATO allies ultimately added forces after the Taliban had retaken broad parts of the country.
The current plan of keeping forces in Afghanistan until May 2021 would allow Mr. Trump, if he is re-elected, to re-evaluate his decision to remove troops based on the level of Taliban violence and how well the peace agreement is working. Some American officials also say the political pressure to remove the troops could be different in a second term.
And if Mr. Trump is defeated, a new president may want to reassess whether a continued American troop presence is necessary.
Lisa Maddox, a former C.I.A. analyst, said that cutting short the deployment by only a few months might not seem like a lot, but the current situation in Afghanistan was fragile.
“It sends a message to our Afghan partners that we are running away,” she said. “Extra time allows for better turnover, which is a complicated process given the U.S. government’s involvement in supporting the country’s security and governance.”
Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Kabul.
The New York Times · by Thomas Gibbons-Neff · May 26, 2020