As Prime Minister Imran Khan lands in Afghanistan to discuss the Afghan peace process, regional economic development, and connectivity, the US administration is sending mixed messages of the US troop pullout timeline and process. 

Christopher Miller, acting Secretary of Defense, said on Tuesday that the US plans to withdraw thousands of soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq by January 15, 2021, five days before Joe Biden is inaugurated as the president. 

It has been reported that Esper, US Central Command leader Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie and commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan Gen. Austin Miller all agree that required conditions in Afghanistan have not yet been met and the withdrawal of troops would be premature. 

Miller has been acting Secretary of Defense since last week, after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. According to a senior administrator, Esper and his team were not in support of withdrawing troops before the required reduction in violence conditions were met. 

In February 2019, the US and the Taliban signed a condition based peace deal, which stated that the US would only withdraw troops if the Taliban broke with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, maintained reduction in violence, and came to an agreement with the Afghan government over power-sharing.

According to State Department officials, these conditions have not yet been met fully. Further, NATO has vowed to only leave Afghanistan if the conditions of the reduction in violence have been met, whereas Trump is looking at a hard deadline to withdraw his troops.

Miller said approximately 2500 troops will be left in Afghanistan by January 2021, of the 4500 deployed there right now, and roughly the same amount will be left in Iraq, where there are currently 3,000 troops. 

Miller said that this withdrawal “does not equate change” to any US policies, and declined to answer any questions regarding their plan to withdraw the troops. 

National security adviser Robert O’Brien talked about the withdraw after Miller’s statement, where he said that the troops remaining will defend the US embassies, diplomats and other agencies of the US government. He added, “By May, it is President Trump’s hope that [the troops] will all come home safely, and in their entirety,” even though Biden will be in office then. 

In a statement to CNN, NATO Secretary-General Jen Stolenberg emphasized how important it is to leave in a coordinated and planned manner, saying, “The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high. Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

Stolenberg further said Afghanistan “risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organise attacks on our homelands”. He added that ISIS could potentially rebuild in Afghanistan if the troops get withdrawn. He also said NATO is committed to train and assist the Afghan security forces, as well as fund them until 2024.

Earlier this month, former NATO Chief of Staff Phil Jones said until permanent peace is has been achieved in Afghanistan, the US or NATO can’t leave withdraw their troops since there is a possibility that terrorism can rise again. 

The news has sparked a mixed reaction from Democrats and Republicans in Washington. Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader and a Republican, voiced his opposition to withdrawing the troops so rapidly. In his speech to the Senate, he said “There’s no American who does not wish the war in Afghanistan against terrorists and their enablers had already been conclusively won,” he said. “But that does not change the actual choice before us now. A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight — delight — the people who wish us harm.”

President-elect Biden has said he supports a withdrawal, but hasn’t outlined a clear or timeline.

It is clear that there is a blatant contradiction between Trump’s plan and what other officials in Washington and NATO allies want to do, which raises the two questions: why is Trump so adamant about withdrawing troops from the Middle East and how will this impact the Afghan peace process? 


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