NBC News is reporting that Donald Trump has told White House aides that he wants to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the 2020 election.
Current negotiations with the Taliban may make that possible. The two sides appear to be inching closer to a political deal that would include a total withdrawal of all U.S. forces.
But the NBC report alludes to some serious friction between the State Department and the Pentagon over the timing of the withdrawal. “It’s tense,” said one former official briefed on the debate:
Last December Trump threatened not only to immediately withdraw all troops from Afghanistan but also to shut down the U.S. embassy in Kabul, complaining to aides that it is too large and expensive, according to officials. The president’s threat to close the U.S. embassy — which has not been previously reported — so alarmed administration and military officials that they quickly offered him a plan to move up the timing of efforts to scale back the size of the embassy staff, officials said.
“He was fed up with hearing that the U.S. was not winning there,” one former U.S. defense official said. “It was no secret he wanted out, but deciding to pull out of the embassy, too, was a shock.”
But Trump argued that without a military presence U.S. embassy staff could be in danger, so it should be closed, the officials said. He also said it was time for the U.S. to get out of the war there otherwise it could bankrupt the U.S. like it did Russia in the 1980s, the two former defense officials said.
It’s no secret to anyone who follows the news that the Taliban are winning the war in Afghanistan. Despite almost two decades of training, the Afghan army is nowhere near able to adequately defend the country. This map paints a grim picture of the military situation:
So the question isn’t so much is Afghanistan a lost cause, it’s how to limit the damage so that blowback doesn’t hurt Trump’s reelection chances.
There is nothing new in this. Barack Obama withdrew almost all troops from Iraq in 2011 and drastically reduced staff at the massive U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, giving as a pretense the Iraqi government’s refusal to agree to a new status of forces agreement. Actually, Obama was hastening to make good on a campaign promise to end the war in Iraq.
The push-pull between the departments of State and Defense on this issue is one of the more intense disagreements in recent years. More from NBC News:
A person familiar with the internal debate said Pompeo has backed a full withdrawal from Afghanistan while National Security Adviser John Bolton has sided with the military in supporting keeping a small troop presence there.
The National Security Council declined to comment on the record.
“There is no deadline for the American mission in Afghanistan,” a senior administration official said in a statement. “The president has been clear that, as we make progress on the peace process, we will begin to scale back our troop presence.”
A State Department spokesperson did not comment on President Trump’s call to close the embassy late last year. The spokesperson did confirm the Department is in the midst of a review of the size of the Embassy in Kabul, but said the US Mission in Kabul has long been the largest mission in the world and even with a substantial cut it will continue to one of the largest.
“We intend to consolidate the US presence while maintaining personnel and programs essential to protect core US national security interests,” the spokesperson said.
The Taliban may make this debate moot. July saw the highest number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan since 2017. It may be only a matter of time before the Afghan government will be forced to sue for peace under less than ideal circumstances.