Pentagon prepares for early pullout from Afghanistan

Updated May 28, 2020

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Senior military commanders have been discussing options for significantly reducing the US troop presence in Afghanistan earlier than planned. — Reuters/File
Senior military commanders have been discussing options for significantly reducing the US troop presence in Afghanistan earlier than planned. — Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump has once again emphasised his commitment to withdraw troops from Afghanistan “as soon as possible,” causing the Pentagon to prepare for an early pullout, the US media reported on Wednesday.

“We’re there 19 years and, yeah, I think that’s enough, and they (Afghans) understand,” President Trump said at a White House news briefing on Tuesday. “We’re really not acting as soldiers. We’re acting as police and we’re not sent there to be policemen.”

Asked if he plans to bring troops home from by Thanksgiving, Mr Trump said: “I have no target, but as soon as reasonable, over a period of time, but as soon as reasonable.”

Nov 26 is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States while the US elections are scheduled on Nov 3, 2020. The US media interpreted President Trump’s statement as indicating that he wants to pull out the troops before the election, if possible.

CNN reported on Wednesday that senior US military commanders have been discussing options for significantly reducing the US troop presence in Afghanistan earlier than planned.

“The closely held discussions were sparked in part by worries that President Trump may want to withdraw troops before voters go to the polls in order to fulfill his 2016 campaign promise to bring troops home,” the report added.

The Reuters news agency reported that US troop strength in Afghanistan was down to nearly 8,600, well ahead of a schedule agreed with Taliban militants in late February. Concerns about the spread of the coronavirus have also persuaded the Pentagon to plan an early withdrawal, the report added.

President Trump further strengthened such speculations by declaring at his briefing that his administration was “having very positive talks” with the Afghans for bringing “our soldiers back home.”

In another statement, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to extend a three-day Eid ceasefire that ended on Tuesday.

“This violence is counterproductive, deepens grievances, and prolongs the suffering of the Afghan people,” said the top US diplomat, adding that the United States had “worked hard” to arrange the Eid ceasefire. He asked all sides to “build on the momentum of this historic ceasefire to move with urgency to intra-Afghan negotiations.”

US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, while emphasizing this point, also identified the three major steps that the Afghan government and the Taliban should take to intensify the peace process: release remaining prisoners, avoid high levels of violence, and fix a new date for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations.

Mr Khalilzad led the US team in the talks that concluded in the US-Taliban agreement and has now been tasked with implementing the deal.

The outgoing US assistant secretary for South Asia, Alice G. Wells, explained at a briefing last week that Washington’s new Afghan policy was based on the realisation that “the war will end via a political settlement and not on the battlefield.”

She also underlined Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process. “It’s deeply in Pakistan’s interest to advance the peace process. I think, as Pakistani leaders like to say, Pakistan is second only to Afghanistan in being able to benefit from regional stability and peace,” she said.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2020