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Report: Esper tried to convince Trump not to pull out of Afghanistan before firing

Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks with President Donald Trump at a White House coronavirus briefing (Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Sipa USA/TNS)
November 16, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark Esper sent a classified memo to the White House this month, in which he told President Donald Trump that conditions were not right to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan, according to two anonymous senior U.S. officials who spoke with the Washington Post. The reported memo came within days of Trump’s decision to fire Esper.

According to the Washington Post, Esper wrote that conditions on the ground were not yet right for further U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. Esper reportedly raised concerns about ongoing violent conditions, the potential danger to remaining troops in the event of a rapid pullout, and the potential to undermine ongoing negotiations and harm alliances.

The reported memo comes after Trump, in October, said U.S. troops in Afghanistan “should be home by Christmas.”

Last week, Trump fired Esper and named Christopher C. Miller as the acting Secretary of Defense. The Washington Post reported on subsequent firings at the Pentagon and other top officials have resigned since Esper’s firing.

The Washington Post reported it had compiled interviews with 21 current and former U.S. and Afghan officials, some of them anonymously, to understand Trump’s deliberations on Afghanistan. Some officials said Trump has been frustrated by what he sees as an entrenched military resistant to his goals played a role in the Pentagon shake-up. Other sources told the Washington Post that Esper’s position on Afghanistan had nothing to do with Trump’s recent Pentagon shake-up.

Despite the U.S.-Taliban peace deal, Taliban has continued attacks against the Afghan government. In October, U.S. envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said violence in Afghanistan remains “distressingly high.

Colin Jackson, who served as a senior Pentagon official overseeing Afghanistan early in the Trump administration, told the Washington Post he advocated against a withdrawal.

“We don’t have a single example where pulling the plug has gone well — Vietnam, Iraq,” Jackson said. “Not one.”

Another official told the Washington Post that the U.S. could not fully withdraw troops from Afghanistan “without crushing the coalition there.”

That official said, “We can get down to maybe 4,500” but “we cannot be at zero.”

Miller, in his first address to Department of Defense employees as the acting Secretary of Defense, said “Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

Miller reportedly spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday about a range of issues, including Afghanistan. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu, described their conversation in an emailed statement to the Washington Post.

“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” Lungescu said. “At the same time, we want to preserve the gains made with such sacrifice, and to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that can attack the United States or any other NATO ally.”