According to sources first referenced by the New York Times, senior military officials are going to brief President Trump, in the very near future, on several possible timelines for completely withdrawing American military forces from Afghanistan.
The military is looking at one proposal, which is thought to be the president’s wish, for a complete withdrawal by the November election. However, the Pentagon is thought to be asking for a slower withdrawal, similar to the agreed-upon peace deal with the Taliban.
But any reduction beyond the 8,600-man limit that is currently agreed upon will have to be condition-based according to Jonathan Hoffman, a spokesman for the Pentagon. Hoffman did say at a press conference that the recent release of 900 Taliban fighters by the Afghan government, which was part of the peace deal, was “incredibly encouraging.”
“It’s been clear for some time that the U.S. has been looking at different options in how we’re going to continue with our presence in Afghanistan,” Hoffman said. “The bottom line is, we’ve said for many months and years now, that the future of Afghanistan is going to be best suited for peace when there is an agreement between inter-Afghan parties.”
The Pentagon wants to avoid a situation that happened in late 2018 and again last year when the president ordered the military to completely withdraw from Syria. The U.S. later modified the withdrawal and although troop numbers were reduced, many American troops remain. The current withdrawal schedule calls for the United States to not completely withdraw from Afghanistan until May of 2021.
With the troop level just under 12,000, the U.S. is following the timeline laid out in the peace deal with the Taliban. “Right now, we’re moving to 8,600,” said Hoffman.
“So we had 135 days, and in July we’ll reach that number. That’s part of the recommendation by the commander. Any reductions under that 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,” he added.
Most military officials believe that a quicker withdrawal from Afghanistan would skewer the peace deal reached this year with the Taliban. With the coronavirus pandemic, which has significantly struck the U.S. economy, the president could be looking at an early withdrawal from Afghanistan as an election ploy to help swing votes in his favor.
President Trump has frequently made it clear that he wants to end America’s involvement in “endless wars” and has been trying to steer the Pentagon out of long-term commitments in the region.
Another consideration of President Trump is the spread of the coronavirus in Afghanistan; it is believed that up to 50 percent of Afghan forces have contracted the virus. The spread has forced some of the smaller Special Operations missions with Afghan allies (called “regional targeting teams”) to be delayed and bases to close earlier than planned. The Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is the one most heavily involved with the Afghan security forces.
One sticking point with the entire peace deal is ensuring that Afghanistan is no longer a haven for terrorist organizations to target the United States. (The Taliban had allowed al-Qaeda operatives to plan the 9/11 attacks from the country.) While that aspect of the deal may never be fully realized the Taliban must still publicly renounce the Islamic State and al-Qaeda before the full troop withdrawal begins. This is yet to be done.
Another sticking point is the release of the Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government. Even though the Afghan government was not a signatory to the peace deal, the U.S. has insisted that they release the prisoners. This has been slowly happening.
President Ashraf Ghani has pledged to release up to 2,000 more prisoners in an attempt to use the three-day ceasefire during the Ramadan holiday as a way to re-energize the peace deal.
While many senior administration officials believe that an early withdrawal sends the wrong message, the upcoming election and a fragile U.S. economy could perhaps be a bigger consideration.