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DOD surprised by Trump’s intent to accelerate U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have welcomed an announcement by President Trump that all U.S. troops should leave the country by the end of the year. But there are questions about how that declaration was received by the U.S. military -- and by American and Afghan negotiators currently in the midst of peace talks. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the Taliban welcomed an announcement by President Trump that all U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan by the end of the year.

    But there are questions today about how that announcement was received by the U.S. military and by U.S. and Afghan negotiators who are in peace talks right now.

    And Nick Schifrin joins me to explain.

    So, Nick, what exactly did the president and his national security adviser have to say about this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Three times, Judy, in the last 24 hours, the White House indicated it wanted to accelerate the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    The first time was yesterday afternoon, National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien visiting Las Vegas. Nevada is a swing state. And for the first time, he set a specific timetable to reduce the troops in half.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    When the president took office, there were over 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan. As of today, there are under 5,000. And that will go to 2,500 by early next year.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last night, the president went further. He tweeted that all troops should be back by Christmas.

    And, this morning, he said this during a phone interview with FOX Business' Maria Bartiromo:

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're down to 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, and I will have them home by the end of the year. They're coming home as we speak. And 19 years is enough. They're acting as policemen, OK? They're not acting as troops.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    (AUDIO GAP) ahead of time?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The half-dozen military officials who I spoke to did not know that either the president's tweet was coming, the president's interview was coming, or Robert O'Brien's statement was coming.

    There has been no public statement up until now that there should be 2,500 troops by early next year. And defense officials tell me there was no coordination between them and the national security adviser before he gave that speech.

    Senior military officials oppose accelerating the withdrawal from Afghanistan. They tell me, Judy, that even if they had to withdraw by the end of the year, they couldn't do it in a very safe way. And if they had, to they would have to destroy equipment that's already in Afghanistan.

    And any kind of speedy withdrawal could also lead the embassy to reduce presence, because the military provides both security and transportation.

    But if the military is worried about the White House, it's mutual. One White House official talking to me today said the military was — quote — "dragging their feet" on the withdraw. And a separate U.S. official told me that these statements help remind the Department of Defense to take withdrawal seriously.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating.

    So, Nick, how does all this affect these ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Look, Judy, on the one hand, like some previous presidential announcements, nothing may come of this. The military has not received any new formal orders.

    But the Afghanistan experts I'm talking to say that this undermines the Afghan government and U.S. diplomats and reduces the pressure on the Taliban.

    Remember that the U.S. deal with the Taliban it signed in February said that the U.S. would withdraw all troops by spring 2021 if and, only if, the Taliban broke with al-Qaida. And that condition has been repeated by diplomats again and again, even last week, that withdraw is conditions-based.

    There were no conditions mentioned by President Trump and initially by Robert O'Brien either. Military and intelligence officials said they haven't even had the time to assess whether the Taliban has actually broken with al-Qaida.

    And everybody I'm talking to today says that, without that condition, the Taliban probably won't offer any concessions and kind of lie in wait until the U.S. withdraws.

    Now, the announcement could put pressure on the Afghan government to agree to some concessions the Taliban are asking for. However, Afghan officials told me today, Judy, that the U.S. is telling them that this is not a new policy, that, effectively, they could ignore the president's tweets.

    What all these people I'm talking to say to me today is that this signals the White House priority is not the Taliban/al-Qaida condition. It's not what's happening in Afghanistan. It is the U.S. election. It is the desire to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

    And, Judy, that could make any progress in what was already a difficult peace talks all the more difficult.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just finally, quickly, exactly what I was going to ask you, Nick.

    The timing of this is what is so interesting, that we are less than four weeks from the election.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, absolutely, less than four weeks from election.

    And that's what the Afghan government and U.S. diplomats and the military are worried about; this is more about politics than policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin reporting for us.

    Thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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