Trump Hasn't Ordered Afghan Troop Withdrawal, White House Says
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump hasn’t ordered the Pentagon to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, a White House spokesman said, contradicting reports last week that he’s directed the military to pull 7,000 soldiers out of a conflict he’s long criticized.
“The president has not made a determination to drawdown U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and he has not directed the Department of Defense to begin the process of withdrawing U.S. personnel from Afghanistan,” Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in an emailed statement on Friday.
The statement came more than a week after a U.S. defense official, who asked not to be identified discussing the troop plans, said the Pentagon will withdraw 7,000 of about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. That decision was widely reported in media outlets, including by Bloomberg News.
But the U.S. commander of international forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, said Sunday he hadn’t received any orders to change troop levels in the country, according to Voice of America -- a statement the NSC appeared to belatedly confirm on Friday.
The clarification may do little to assuage rising alarm among world leaders and senior lawmakers from both parties who criticized the president’s sudden decision last week to begin pulling troops out of Syria, a move that prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign. While he didn’t publicly talk about Afghanistan, the president repeatedly said in the days following the Syria and Afghan reports that he was eager to bring troops home from overseas so he could focus on defending U.S. borders.
Trump has long criticized the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan, the longest military conflict in U.S. history and one that has cost about 2,300 American lives. He only reluctantly agreed to his military advisers’ request to allow about 4,000 more troops to be sent to the country last year.
Since American troops first arrived in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the U.S. has appropriated about $126 billion for relief and reconstruction, including $78 billion for security, according to a July report from a Pentagon watchdog. Yet the U.S. presence and money haven’t prevented conditions on the ground from deteriorating.
According to a Pentagon watchdog’s reports, the Kabul government’s grip on the country has constantly shrunk, civilian deaths have risen and the production of poppy used to make heroin is surging.
Publicly, Trump’s national security team has said its approach was effective. During a trip to Afghanistan in July, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo insisted that Trump’s strategy to fight the Taliban was working. Mattis similarly said earlier this year that Afghanistan was a “tough fight” but the American effort “is working from our perspective.”
There was an acknowledgement, however, that American firepower could only go so far. General Miller said in an October interview with NBC News that the conflict “is not going to be won militarily.”
“My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily,” Miller told NBC. “So if you realize you can’t win militarily at some point, fighting is just -- people start asking why.”
The latest quarterly report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction described the military situation as of Nov. 30 as being at “an impasse.” The arrival of additional U.S. advisers this year helped slow “the momentum of a Taliban march that had capitalized on U.S. draw-downs between 2011 and 2016,” it said.
Afghan forces “remain in control of most of Afghanistan’s population centers and all of the provincial capitals, while the Taliban control large portions of Afghanistan’s rural areas, and continue to attack poorly defended government checkpoints and rural district centers,” it said.
The decision to withdraw forces comes as the U.S. tries to broker talks aimed at bringing a more lasting peace to Afghanistan. American officials held talks with Taliban representatives in the United Arab Emirates last week, joined by officials from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the U.A.E.
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