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O’Brien: Troops may be in Afghanistan past Christmas

U.S. Marines disembark from a U.S. Army helicopter at Camp Bost, Helmand Province, on Oct. 29, 2017. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
October 19, 2020

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, in a Friday interview, said the plan is for U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond Christmas, following a Christmas withdrawal timeline recently tweeted by President Donald Trump.

O’Brien, in an online appearance with the Aspen Institute reported by DefenseOne, said U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan beyond Christmas. His comments come after President Donald Trump, a week prior, tweeted, “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

O’Brien on Friday said Trump “was expressing the same desire that every president since the Revolutionary War has said. All presidents, all GIs, want the troops home by Christmas.”

“We’re on a path right now that looks like about 4,500 this fall and a smaller number in January or February,” O’Brien said, before suggesting an even faster timeline for troop withdrawal is still possible.

“But if the conditions permit it, we’d love to get people out earlier,” he said.

O’Brien on Friday did not say how many troops would remain in Afghanistan into 2021, but he appeared to reiterate previous remarks suggesting the number to be around 2,500.

Since entering into a peace agreement with the Taliban, the U.S. has been gradually withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. In the summer, the number of troops in the country fell from about 13,000 to about 8,600. Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in the summer that the U.S. planned to have the number of troops in Afghanistan below 5,000 by the end of November.

Trump’s recent suggestion of a Christmas timeline for the withdrawal of the remaining troops came just hours after O’Brien said the number of troops 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.

O’Brien’s Friday comments came after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan should be conditions-based, rather than following a set timeline. In an interview with NPR, Milley was also asked about the potential Christmas timeline for all U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Milley said he would not speculate on the matter.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit,” Milley said. “I’m not going to engage in speculation.”

On Friday, O’Brien said, “It has been suggested by some that that’s speculation. I can guarantee you that’s the plan of the president of the United States. That’s the order of the commander-in-chief, that’s not speculation.”

O’Brien’s comments suggested Trump had established and was following a plan that would keep troops in Afghanistan into 2021.