Trump unchained? Afghan troop surprise shows pre-election impulse to upend policy

Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers stand guard at a check point near the Bagram Airbase north of Kabul, Afghanistan

Trump unchained? Afghan troop surprise shows pre-election impulse to upend policy

FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers stand guard at a check point near the Bagram Airbase north of Kabul, Afghanistan

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Less than a month before the election, U.S. President Donald Trump's abrupt vow to bring home troops from Afghanistan by year-end is a sign of how he may feel increasingly unchained to push through a foreign policy "wish list" he hopes could appeal to voters, current and former officials say.

Trump, a former businessman from New York who boasts about his deal-making skills, has made finishing up what he has called "ridiculous endless wars" a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

But the Republican, trailing Democratic candidate Joe Biden in opinion polls, still has thousands of troops in Iraq, Syria and the site of America's longest war, Afghanistan.

Trump, confined to the White House where he is being treated for COVID-19, on Wednesday tweeted that all U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be "home by Christmas," just hours after his national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, said Washington would reduce its forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year.

Trump's tweet caught the National Security Council, State Department and Pentagon by surprise, according to three U.S. officials, and they fear that it could reduce the limited leverage the Afghan government has in talks with the Taliban.

"A lot of different scenarios have been discussed, but we weren't expecting this," one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump's remarks often underscore his desires and broad intentions, instead of any actual plans. He made a similar surprise announcement on withdrawal from Syria two years ago, yet hundreds of U.S. troops remain.

Yet U.S. officials say they are concerned that Trump, in the run-up to the Nov. 3 election, may make moves to score political points that could alienate allies, undermine his own administration's efforts and upend assumptions about America's national security agenda.

Officials said that no formal orders had been given based on Trump's tweet and they would be surprised if any moves would be made before the election.

The military will almost certainly balk at being pushed too quickly to carry out a complete withdrawal, given the need to remove or destroy sensitive equipment, shutter bases and safely exit where it once had more than 100,000 troops.

TALIBAN CHEERS

Still, a complete withdrawal is on the horizon. A landmark deal between the United States and the Taliban in February said foreign forces would leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula with the Afghan government.

But Trump and other officials had previously said the United States would go down to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in Afghanistan around November and a reduction beyond that would depend on conditions in the country - wording that reflects deep U.S. national concerns over al Qaeda and Islamic State elements there.

The Taliban cheered Trump's tweet, calling it "a positive step" toward fulfilling U.S. pledges.

Even if Trump does not follow through, the tweet is likely to weaken the Afghan government's position in talks with the Taliban.

Laurel Miller, who served as acting U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Trump appears to have put his re-election bid above U.S. national security concerns and relations with allies, who serve alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"This is once again taking a sledgehammer to U.S. credibility around the world," Miller said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)