White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on Friday doubled down on a plan first announced by President Trump last week to withdraw the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by Christmas, despite pushback from top Pentagon leaders.
“When I speak and talk about troop levels and that sort of thing, look, I’m a staffer. I staff the president of the United States. It’s not my practice to speculate. Other people can interpret that what I say is a speculation or not, but I wasn’t speculating then, I wasn’t speculating today,” Mr. O’Brien said during a virtual event hosted by the Aspen Security Forum.
“And so when I’m speaking, I’m speaking for the president. And I think that’s what the Pentagon is moving out and doing,” he said.
In a surprise tweet last week, Mr. Trump claimed that all troops will be out of Afghanistan by the beginning of next year, fueling fresh questions about a U.S. exit plan that looks to be accelerating even as American forces remain at war with an emboldened Taliban.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week refused to confirm the rapid withdrawal timeline and 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 the country at the beginning 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,” Gen. Milley told NPR in an interview Monday. “I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit. I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”
At its peak in 2011, the U.S. had about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That figure dropped to under 9,000 by the time former President Obama left office.
The Trump administration this year struck an agreement with the Taliban in February which laid the groundwork for the U.S. withdrawal in exchange for promises that the Taliban would never again allow the country to be a safe haven for terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda.
But the conflicting statements from top U.S. officials have left the Afghan government confused on the true course of action.
Abdullah Abdullah, who has led the Afghan government’s delegation in ongoing talks with the Taliban, said Thursday that despite Mr. Trump’s tweet, confusion continues to surround the logistics of the troop withdrawal.
“Nobody has given any clarity,” Mr. Abdullah said in an interview with Financial Times, citing the looming drawdown.
“If the U.S. withdraws, then they can come back by force,” he said of Taliban fighters. “They might see it in their advantage.”
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