Afghans stunned, worried by Trump tweet to bring home U.S. troops early

Oct. 13, 2020
Afghan police personnel man the Ali Nazar outpost in the area of Bolan, just outside Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, in February 2020.
KABUL — After months of tortuous negotiations and diplomatic efforts to settle the 19-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, President Trump’s tweet last week saying he intends to bring all U.S. troops home by Christmas has landed here like a bomb from nowhere, leaving Afghan hopes for nascent peace talks scattered like shrapnel.

Taliban leaders have reacted with open delight, welcoming Trump’s Oct. 7 statement and reportedly telling CBS News that they hoped he will win reelection in November. The group’s top spokesman later said his comment to that effect had been “incorrectly” interpreted, after it set off a frenzy of controversy and was rejected by the White House.

But many Afghans and analysts say they fear that if Trump follows through, abruptly dropping the U.S.-Taliban agreement for a conditions-based and gradual pullout of the about 4,500 remaining U.S. troops by May, the country may plunge again into full-scale war and political mayhem.

“If the withdrawal takes place according to the tweet, it will create chaos. The peace process will collapse, and we will go back to square one,” said Ehsanullah Zia, a former senior Afghan official who heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “This is the only thing the Taliban really wanted. People were becoming hopeful, but this sudden tweet has changed the scenario. Now all that investment, all that sacrifice, could go down the drain.”

Fazel Mohammed, 60, a taxi driver who once served as a soldier in the Soviet-backed Afghan government of the 1980s, predicted that a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops could “plunge the country into a civil war, exactly like what happened after the Soviet forces left.”

Afghans flee their villages after fighting intensified between Taliban militants and security forces in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, on Oct. 12, 2020.

Afghan officials are playing down the impact of any early U.S. troop pullout, insisting that their forces are prepared to take on the Taliban alone and noting that they have fought largely without U.S. military help in recent months. Shah Mahmood Miakhel, a deputy defense minister, said that today, “99 percent of all military operations are planned and executed by Afghans.”

On Sunday, Taliban fighters stormed two districts around Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, which they have tried to capture for years. They cut off the regional highway and the power supply. But Afghan special operations forces were sent in, backed up by airstrikes. Officials said the government forces quickly prevailed, killing 71 insurgents and arresting the group’s “shadow” provincial governor.

Several officials said that even if the ongoing Afghan-Taliban talks in Qatar break off and the war continues, the insurgents will never be able to win power through violence because they lack the skills to govern, enjoy little popular support and would be shunned by both regional powers and the international community, which has propped up Afghanistan’s flawed democracy for years.

“Whatever the Taliban claims, they are not winning hearts and minds. Nobody wants them back, including people who are unhappy with the current government,” Miakhel said. “Even in the worst-case scenario, if the war continues with zero foreign troops or support, we will face difficult days, but they cannot gain the upper hand.” The Taliban ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001.

Other officials said the government of President Ashraf Ghani has long become accustomed to mercurial outbursts by Trump and does not take them as seriously as it once did. Some suggested that the U.S. leader might change his mind again or be talked out of the early troop departure, which is widely seen here as motivated by domestic campaign concerns ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Oct.13, 2020
Afghan police personnel man the Ali Nazar outpost in the area of Bolan, just outside Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, in February 2020.

KABUL — After months of tortuous negotiations and diplomatic efforts to settle the 19-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, President Trump’s tweet last week saying he intends to bring all U.S. troops home by Christmas has landed here like a bomb from nowhere, leaving Afghan hopes for nascent peace talks scattered like shrapnel.

Taliban leaders have reacted with open delight, welcoming Trump’s Oct. 7 statement and reportedly telling CBS News that they hoped he will win reelection in November. The group’s top spokesman later said his comment to that effect had been “incorrectly” interpreted, after it set off a frenzy of controversy and was rejected by the White House.

But many Afghans and analysts say they fear that if Trump follows through, abruptly dropping the U.S.-Taliban agreement for a conditions-based and gradual pullout of the about 4,500 remaining U.S. troops by May, the country may plunge again into full-scale war and political mayhem.

“If the withdrawal takes place according to the tweet, it will create chaos. The peace process will collapse, and we will go back to square one,” said Ehsanullah Zia, a former senior Afghan official who heads the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “This is the only thing the Taliban really wanted. People were becoming hopeful, but this sudden tweet has changed the scenario. Now all that investment, all that sacrifice, could go down the drain.”

Fazel Mohammed, 60, a taxi driver who once served as a soldier in the Soviet-backed Afghan government of the 1980s, predicted that a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops could “plunge the country into a civil war, exactly like what happened after the Soviet forces left.”

Afghans flee their villages after fighting intensified between Taliban militants and security forces in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, on Oct. 12, 2020.

Afghan officials are playing down the impact of any early U.S. troop pullout, insisting that their forces are prepared to take on the Taliban alone and noting that they have fought largely without U.S. military help in recent months. Shah Mahmood Miakhel, a deputy defense minister, said that today, “99 percent of all military operations are planned and executed by Afghans.”

On Sunday, Taliban fighters stormed two districts around Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand province, which they have tried to capture for years. They cut off the regional highway and the power supply. But Afghan special operations forces were sent in, backed up by airstrikes. Officials said the government forces quickly prevailed, killing 71 insurgents and arresting the group’s “shadow” provincial governor.

Several officials said that even if the ongoing Afghan-Taliban talks in Qatar break off and the war continues, the insurgents will never be able to win power through violence because they lack the skills to govern, enjoy little popular support and would be shunned by both regional powers and the international community, which has propped up Afghanistan’s flawed democracy for years.

“Whatever the Taliban claims, they are not winning hearts and minds. Nobody wants them back, including people who are unhappy with the current government,” Miakhel said. “Even in the worst-case scenario, if the war continues with zero foreign troops or support, we will face difficult days, but they cannot gain the upper hand.” The Taliban ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001.

Other officials said the government of President Ashraf Ghani has long become accustomed to mercurial outbursts by Trump and does not take them as seriously as it once did. Some suggested that the U.S. leader might change his mind again or be talked out of the early troop departure, which is widely seen here as motivated by domestic campaign concerns ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

“This is a big blow, and it has dampened the national mood, but Afghans have already lost trust in the Americans. After November 3, there could be another tweet,” said one senior national security aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “The Taliban would be happy if Trump is reelected, but they, too, know that another tweet could change everything, and that even if the American troops leave, other regional powers are watching.”

A truck bombing in Ghanikhil district, Nangahar province, on Oct. 3, 2020, killed 14 people, officials said.

Many Afghans were angered and disillusioned by the outcome of a U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February after a year of negotiations. They felt the Trump administration had made too many concessions in its haste to clinch the deal and jump-start peace talks between Afghan and Taliban leaders. The talks have made virtually no progress since opening a month ago in Qatar, where the Taliban has an office.

In the months since the pact was signed, the insurgents have unleashed a wave of violence, killing thousands of civilians in bombings, assassinating high-profile leaders, and assaulting Afghan security forces. On Oct. 3, for example, a car bombing at a government center in eastern Nangahar province killed 14 civilians and wounded 40.

“The U.S. agreement did no good for the country except to start the talks that have been stalled for a month now,” Zia said. “It did not reduce the fighting, and it was all in the Taliban’s favor.”

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan today is minuscule compared with a decade ago, when a “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama eventually led to more than 100,000 American troops on the ground. But the psychological boost of U.S. commitment and the leveraging of Afghan combat strength through U.S. airstrikes have been crucial in maintaining the Afghan military’s morale.

“If the United States leaves now, the Taliban will storm Kabul and do to President Ghani what they did to Najib,” said Zakiullah Amini, 21, a grocery stall owner, referring to former president Najibullah, who was tortured and lynched by Taliban forces when they entered the capital on Sept. 27, 1996.

“The Taliban know that if foreigners leave they can overthrow the government,” Amini said. “Why bother to negotiate?”Pamela Constable

Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s.
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Top General Declines to Endorse Trump’s Afghan Withdrawal Timeline

By 

The New York Times

The comments from Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came after the White House tripped over itself on the issue of Afghanistan troop levels in recent days.

Gen. Mark A. Milley sought to distance himself from embracing any strict timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Credit…Pool photo by Michael Reynolds 

Washington — The nation’s top general declined on Sunday to endorse either of the sudden announcements on Afghan troop withdrawals that came out of the White House last week.

In an interview with NPR, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the agreement reached with Afghan and Taliban officials to leave Afghanistan was “conditions based,” adding that the United States would “responsibly” end the war.

His comments came after the White House tripped over itself on the issue of Afghanistan troop levels in recent days.

General Milley was aware before the interview that he would be asked about the comments by Mr. Trump and his national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, a senior U.S. official said. And, in his remarks, General Milley sought to distance himself from embracing any strict timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but phrased his comments in a way that did not directly contradict Mr. Trump, with whom he has a good one-on-one working relationship.

With no warning to the Pentagon, Mr. O’Brien told an audience in Las Vegas on Wednesday that the United States would cut its troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year. That, by itself, raised eyebrows at the Defense Department, where officials said they were still operating under orders to reduce troop levels to 4,500.

But the president himself added to the confusion when he contradicted Mr. O’Brien hours later and suggested — via Twitter — a timeline as early as Christmas to bring all troops home.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Mr. Trump wrote.

Defense Department officials were caught by surprise and, in his interview, General Milley appeared to give voice to the frustration with both the accelerated timeline and the conflicting messages.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit,” General Milley said. “I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”

General Milley, along with close to all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been quarantining at home after the coronavirus outbreak that began at the White House two weeks ago.

While Mr. Trump has announced that he is now coronavirus-free after his stay at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, much of the senior Defense Department leadership is still under quarantine after attending a White House reception hosted by Mr. Trump for families of fallen troops. Adm. Charles Ray, the vice commandant of the Coast Guard, tested positive for the virus after attending the event.

Mr. Trump has a history of taking to Twitter to announce policy, frequently to the surprise of those involved in formulating that policy or carrying it out. The president has forecast troop withdrawals, for instance, even without informing the Pentagon, as he did with Syria in 2018, in a move that prompted the resignation of Jim Mattis as defense secretary.

The Pentagon is a place that lives by rules, and Defense Department officials noted on Monday — again — that the military did not really respond to orders that come via Twitter.

General Milley said as much in the NPR interview when he spoke of the agreement with Afghan and Taliban officials that the U.S. military would withdraw as conditions — and the situation on the ground — allowed it to do so without endangering the mission.

“That was the decision of the president on a conditions-based withdrawal,” General Milley said. “So we’re monitoring all of those conditions closely. And we’re, the military, are giving our best military advice on those conditions so that the president can make an informed, deliberate, responsible decision.”

Senior military officials have argued all year that a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan would effectively doom the peace deal reached in February with the Taliban.

In recent months, Mr. Trump has repeatedly voiced a desire to leave the country sooner than the timeline laid out in the Feb. 29 peace agreement, which stipulated that U.S. troops would withdraw in 12 to 14 months if the insurgent group met certain conditions.

The Pentagon has tried to work around a commander in chief who has regularly surprised the military with his decisions. Taliban and Afghan-government-backed negotiators, for their part, are still struggling to advance intra-Afghan peace talks.

As the discussions have continued, so too has the fighting. In a significant tactical shift, the Taliban have carried out targeted assaults, like bombings and assassinations, to exert pressure while maintaining deniability for the violence.

In Doha, Qatar, where the talks are taking place, chief negotiators from both sides have called for patience, but sticking points remain, including which school of Islamic thought to use for resolving disputes.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

Afghans stunned, worried by Trump tweet to bring home U.S. troops early