Trump's promise to withdraw from Afghanistan 'by Christmas' reflects foreign policy disarray

President Trump’s Wednesday evening tweet saying all U.S. troops in Afghanistan “should” be “home by Christmas” does not appear to be official U.S. policy, but was nonetheless welcomed by the Taliban as a “positive step.”

Instead, the tweet appears to reflect a chaotic, COVID-19-ridden White House in which senior leaders who ostensibly work in the same building are not coordinating their statements with each other.

“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Trump tweeted at 7:28 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday.

In a sign of the disjointed approach that has characterized this administration’s foreign policy in general and Afghanistan in particular, the tweet came just hours after Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said that the United States would go down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan early next year.

U.S. President Donald Trump salutes as he poses without a face mask on the Truman Balcony of the White House after returning from being hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) treatment, in Washington, U.S. October 5, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
President Trump salutes from the Truman Balcony of the White House after returning from Walter Reed medical center on Monday. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

If followed through on, Trump’s statement would seem to render irrelevant the conditions for total U.S. withdrawal set out in the bilateral peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban and signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February. As part of that deal, the United States reduced its forces to 8,600 by mid-July. But any reductions beyond that are contingent on the Taliban not only ensuring that terrorist groups cannot use Afghanistan as a haven from which to threaten the United States and its allies but also cutting all ties with such groups, including al-Qaida.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief U.S. negotiator with the Taliban, acknowledged in a Sept. 22 congressional hearing that the Taliban had not yet met these conditions.

Earlier on Wednesday, Trump’s previous national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, had denounced the president’s Afghanistan policy as “an utter disaster” that gave the impression that the United States was siding with the Taliban against the Afghan government.

Indeed, on Thursday Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid responded positively on Twitter to Trump’s tweet, using the Taliban’s preferred name for itself — the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. “Islamic Emirate welcomes these remarks and considers it a positive step for the implementation of the agreement signed between the IEA and the U.S.,” he said in a statement.

The spokespersons for both U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in Afghanistan, and the Defense Department referred all queries on Trump’s tweet to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.

A retired colonel who closely interacts with Central Command and the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan said Trump’s tweet should not be taken seriously and that there had been no changes to the military’s plans for Afghanistan. “Presidential tweets are not an indicator of actual policy adjustments,” the retired colonel said. “People in the military don’t respond to political and psychological outbursts.”

Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican who is retiring from Congress this year and previously spent a tour in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in his former career as a CIA officer, also criticized the president’s desire to withdraw from Afghanistan. “Bringing US troops home before the job is done is dangerous,” he said in a Thursday afternoon tweet. “Wrong move at the wrong time.”


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