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War in Afghanistan

Pentagon planning troop pull-out from Afghanistan, US official claims

  • President Donald Trump considers America’s longest war a lost cause, after 17 years and nearly US$900 billion spent on the conflict
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 11:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 9:26pm

The Pentagon is developing plans to withdraw up to half of the 14,000 American troops serving in Afghanistan, US officials said on Thursday, marking a sharp change in the Trump administration’s policy aimed at forcing the Taliban to the peace table after more than 17 years of war.

One official said the troops could be out by summer, but no final decision has been made.

President Donald Trump has long pushed to pull troops out of Afghanistan, considering the war a lost cause. But earlier this year, he was persuaded by Defence Secretary James Mattis and others military leaders to keep troops on the ground to pressure the Taliban and battle a stubborn Islamic State insurgency.

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Publicly, Trump’s national security team has said the approach was effective. During a trip to Afghanistan in July, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo insisted Trump’s strategy to fight the Taliban was working. Those thoughts were similar to those shared by Mattis, who called Afghanistan a “tough fight” but said the American effort “is working from our perspective”.

There was an acknowledgement, however, that American firepower could only go so far. The newest commander on the ground, General Scott Miller, said in an October interview with NBC News that the conflict “is not going to be won militarily”.

“My assessment is the Taliban also realises they cannot win militarily,” Miller told NBC. “So if you realise you can’t win militarily at some point, fighting is just – people start asking why.”

Trump’s decision came hours after the Pentagon published a new quarterly report on Afghanistan that described the military situation as of November 30 as being at “an impasse”. The arrival of additional US advisers this year helped slow “the momentum of a Taliban march that had capitalised on US drawdowns between 2011 and 2016”, it said.

Afghan forces “remain in control of most of Afghanistan’s population centres and all of the provincial capitals, while the Taliban control large portions of Afghanistan’s rural areas, and continue to attack poorly defended government checkpoints and rural district centres,” it said.

Officials said the latest White House push for withdrawal was another key factor in Mattis’ decision to resign.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

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US troops stormed into Afghanistan in November 2001 in an invasion triggered by the September 11 attacks.

Since then, America has lost more than 2,400 soldiers and spent more than US$900 billion in its longest war. Three US presidents have pledged to bring peace to Afghanistan, either by adding or withdrawing troops, by engaging the Taliban or shunning them, and by struggling to combat widespread corruption in the government.

The US and Nato formally ended their combat mission in 2014, but American and allied troops are still there, conducting strikes on Islamic State and the Taliban and trying to train and build the Afghan military.

Officials now worry that any move to withdraw US troops this year could dampen those prospects and simply encourage the Taliban to wait it out until they can take advantage of the gaps when the forces leave.