WASHINGTON – President Trump’s national security advisor announced Wednesday that the United States would reduce its troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year.
But hours later, his boss contradicted him, proposed a schedule for Christmas, and caused confusion among the administrative officials.
“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE men and women who will be at home in Afghanistan by Christmas!” Mr. Trump posted on Twitter.
When asked about the tweet, a senior US military official was silent for a moment before saying, “Oh my god!” The official said he was unaware of such a decision.
But Mr. Trump often goes to Twitter to post guidelines, often to the surprise of those involved. For example, the president has forecast troop withdrawals without approving the Pentagon, as he did with Syria in 2018, leading to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
The senior U.S. military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments, asked questions at the time of conflicting comments by Mr Trump and his advisor Robert C. O’Brien on troop cuts in Afghanistan that came shortly before the Vice-presidential debate began.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Brien had forecast a reduction in the 4,500 service members who officials had estimated would stay in Afghanistan through November to 2,500. That number, government officials calculated, would give the president an opportunity to tell voters that he has ended America’s longest war. However, such a drawdown is likely to depend on the election result.
“When President Trump took office, there were over 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan,” O’Brien said during an event at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. “To date there are fewer than 5,000 and that will be 2,500 by the beginning of next year.”
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate, is also not in favor of a significant troop presence in the country. However, should he win office, his administration is likely to conduct a policy review on Afghanistan.
Senior military officials have argued throughout the year that a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan would effectively undo the February peace accord with the Taliban.
Over the past few months, Mr Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to leave the country sooner than the February 29 peace agreement with the Taliban stipulated that if the insurgent group met certain conditions, US troops would withdraw in 12-14 months .
The Pentagon has tried to bypass a commander in chief who has regularly surprised the military with his decisions. For their part, the Taliban and Afghan government-backed negotiators are still struggling to advance intra-Afghan peace talks, even though both sides recently agreed on a comprehensive code of conduct.
As the discussions went on, so did the fighting. In a major tactical shift, the Taliban have carried out targeted attacks such as bombings and assassinations to exert pressure while maintaining the denial of violence.
In Doha, Qatar, where the talks are taking place, negotiators on both sides have asked for patience, but sticking points remain, such as the school of Islamic thought to be used to settle disputes.
While both parties largely agree to use the Hanafi School of Islamic Thought, one of the four major Sunni schools that also forms the basis of the current Afghan constitution, they disagree on a formulation that other sects, particularly the Shiites, can use , not alienated.
“Ultimately, the Afghans have to work out an agreement themselves, a peace deal,” said O’Brien. He added, “We think Americans need to come home.”