WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is preparing for President Donald Trump to withdraw thousands of American troops from Afghanistan before the presidential election as military leaders recommend keeping at least a small counterterrorism force to remain in the country, current and former U.S. officials said.
The troop cuts would follow the withdrawal of several thousand service members since the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban on Feb. 29. The agreement called for the United States to reduce the number of service members in Afghanistan from about 12,000 to 8,600 by mid-July, with a possible full pullout by next spring if the Taliban meets several conditions.
The Taliban has mostly refrained from attacking U.S. forces since March, as required in the deal, but peace negotiations between the insurgent group and the Afghan government have largely stalled in a bloody quagmire. Scores of civilians were killed or injured as a result of Afghan government operations and in Taliban attacks last month, a significant increase over April 2019, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials, however, still expect Trump to cut more troops before to Election Day as he seeks to deliver on a promise to end America’s “forever wars.”
Trump at a news conference Tuesday evening declined to set a timetable for withdrawal. But he said the United States has been in Afghanistan long enough, and “we can always go back if we want to.”
“I have no target,” he said of a potential end to America’s 18-year-old war. “But as soon as reasonable. Over a period of time, but as soon as reasonable.”
Senior Pentagon officials are expected to meet soon with the president to discuss options, one defense official said. Several proposals have been drawn up for Trump, including one that would remove all U.S. troops this year, another defense official said. The officials, like some others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The New York Times first reported on Tuesday that senior U.S. defense officials and Trump would meet in coming days to discuss options for Afghanistan, including possibly removing all troops there.
Two Afghan officials said Wednesday that they are aware that Trump wants a faster withdrawal but that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has not officially been informed of any change in plans.
The discussions have been complicated by the novel coronavirus, which has spread rapidly in Afghanistan.
In-person military training programs have been suspended, joint operations curtailed and face-to-face meetings severely reduced, according to senior Afghan defense officials. U.S. troops who visited Afghan bases regularly are now largely confined to their bases, the officials said.
Army Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has long understood that deeper cuts to the U.S. military in Afghanistan were possible this year, said one former senior defense official familiar with his thinking.
Before the U.S. deal with the Taliban was signed in February, Miller told other senior U.S. officials that he was comfortable with the terms of the agreement because they safeguarded American interests and included a counterterrorism force.
Last year, Miller directed his top officer overseeing Special Operations, Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, to form a network of U.S. forces that could carry out counterterrorism missions and partner with Afghan forces to collect intelligence if a few thousand troops or fewer remained in the country.
The network, built around what U.S. military officials called “regional targeting teams,” has been operating for months and can be adjusted if more troops are withdrawn, a senior U.S. military official told The Washington Post during a briefing in Afghanistan in February.
It probably would take a few months for the military to withdraw all of its troops, the former senior defense official said.
The effort would include shipping weapons and other sensitive equipment out on aircraft, transferring other items to Afghan forces and abandoning some items that are of lesser value. Several thousand forces from NATO allies also remain in Afghanistan, and some of the nations would need American aircraft to help remove their equipment, the former senior defense official said.
Miller has stressed to U.S. forces the need to determine what equipment should stay and go; some items have already been shipped out of the country in recent months.
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan declined to comment about ongoing planning, referring questions to the Defense Department.
The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, said in a news conference on Tuesday that he had no updates on any forthcoming meetings between Defense Department officials and Trump.
“I think it’s been clear for some time that the U.S. has been looking at different options and how we are going to continue with our presence in Afghanistan,” he said.
The bottom line, he said, is that U.S. officials have said for months that the future of Afghanistan is “going to be best suited for peace” when there is an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
The planning for an expedited withdrawal comes as a rare three-day cease-fire between Afghan forces and the Taliban, established in recognition of the Islamic holiday Eid, appeared to be holding longer than initially conceived. The cessation of violence was scheduled to end Tuesday at midnight but had continued, according to Afghanistan’s national security council.
As recently as Tuesday, the Taliban was discussing whether to extend the cease-fire, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the group. Taliban officials have declined to comment on the status of the truce since then.
Bringing down the levels of violence in Afghanistan is a key demand of Afghan, U.S. and Taliban officials as all parties wrangle over how to proceed. A condition in the U.S.-Taliban agreement also had been a significant stumbling block, with senior Afghan officials balking at the idea due to security concerns.
Ghani ordered the release of up to 2,000 prisoners during the cease-fire this week as a goodwill gesture. U.S. officials praised the move, stressing that all parties should seize on the opportunity for peace.
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