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Gen. Milley caveats Trump’s Afghanistan Christmas withdrawal timeline; says it’s ‘conditions-based’

U.S. Army General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool/CNP/Abaca Press/TNS)
October 13, 2020

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan should be based on the conditions on the ground, rather than on a predetermined date, such as the one President Trump laid out.

During his interview on Sunday with NPR, Milley was asked about President Donald Trump’s Wednesday tweet in which he said the remaining troops in Afghanistan should be home by Christmas. Milley said the existing U.S.-Taliban peace agreement lays out conditions that should be met for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and that military leaders have laid out various options “so that the president can make an informed, deliberate, responsible decision” on troop withdrawals.

“Future drawdowns will be determined by the president,” Milley said. “And I’m not going to disclose specific numbers and what those are. The whole agreement and all of the drawdown plans are conditions-based, and I expect that we’ll have further discussions on the conditions and ensure that they warrant.”

Milley said the plan for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan “has always been our instructions. That’s always been the agreement. That was the decision of the president on a conditions-based withdrawal.”

“We have a plan, a series of responsible drawdown options that has been briefed to the president,” Milley told NPR.”The key here is that we’re trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately, and to do it on terms that guarantee the safety of the U.S. vital national security interests that are at stake in Afghanistan.”

Trump’s Christmas timeline for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was faster than the timeline described by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on the same day. Speaking at a University of Nevada, Las Vegas event, O’Brien announced U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan had already fallen below 5,000 and that the U.S. planned to reduce troop levels to about 2,500 by the early part of 2021.

Milley noted there were around 12,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the start of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, when it was signed on Feb. 28. The number of troops fell to about 8,500 over the summer and Milley said, “we’re on a plan to do a responsible, deliberate drawdown to about 4,500 here very shortly.”

Milley said conditions for withdrawal include the start of intra-Afghan negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, no Taliban attacks on U.S. forces, no major attacks on other major urban areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban cutting ties with Al Qaeda terrorists, and a “variety of other conditions.”

Asked if those conditions are being met currently, Milley said “Well, the peace talks are happening, they’re not finalized, so I caveat that because they are ongoing in Doha as you know.”

Other conditions for Afghanistan peace are more difficult to measure, he added.

“It depends. It depends on the specific condition and it depends on how you want to measure it,” he said. “In terms of violence, for example, if you start measuring the violence from, call it four or five months ago, has there been a significant reduction in violence? Answer: not significant. If you measure it from two to three years ago or five years ago, there has been a significant reduction in violence.”

Milley said, “You have to look at this stuff analytically and we do. And you have to put it through a high degree of rigor, because you can get two people looking at the same set of phenomena and they will come up with two different conclusions. So what I want to make sure is that we’re going through a high degree of rigor and providing good analysis for the president to make a responsible, deliberate decision.”

Asked what would happen if the U.S. did completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan by Christmas, Milley would not provide a specific answer.

“I don’t think, frankly, it would be appropriate, and I know you wouldn’t want me to, to speculate in an open forum on what I might advise the president on what those risks are,” Milley said. “So and I think that I owe that advice to him and I owe it in the confines and privacy of discussions between his military adviser and himself.”