Trump administration signals Afghanistan drawdown is close
Multiple signs are currently pointing toward a U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.
What they're saying: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today that he's comfortable with a smaller U.S. troop presence, national security adviser Robert O'Brien said he's "cautiously optimistic" an announcement is forthcoming, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Afghan president to fill him in on a possible deal.
- As O'Brien reiterated last night, President Trump believes "it's time for America to come home" after 18 years, though he cautioned that a full withdrawal is not imminent. He also noted that withdrawal deals have collapsed in the past.
- Two American soldiers, Sgt. Javier Jaguar Gutierrez and Sgt. Antonio Rey Rodriguez, were killed on Saturday by a soldier in an Afghan army uniform, per AP. Trump traveled to Dover Air Base Monday to pay his respects.
The U.S. has engaged in stop-start negotiations with the Taliban over the past year to set conditions for an American withdrawal.
- Despite promising during his 2016 campaign to end the war, Trump was convinced early in his presidency to keep a large U.S. presence in the country. Now, he reportedly wants all American troops out of the country by November's election.
- A deal seemed within striking distance last September but fell apart after a deadly Taliban attack and the scuttling of a summit Trump hoped to host at Camp David.
- Despite U.S. demands for a ceasefire, the Taliban only grew more aggressive in recent months, possibly to strengthen its leverage in negotiations. American airstrikes also increased to the highest levels in years.
The state of play: Recent negotiations in Qatar seem to have proved fruitful. One senior diplomat told the NY Times that a deal is 95% complete, at least in principle.
- The complete outline of the deal isn't known, but it includes assurances from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not be used in the future as a base for terror groups like al-Qaeda.
- The U.S. is also demanding a reduction in violence before and after the deal is complete and negotiations on power-sharing between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tweeted yesterday that Pompeo had notified him of "notable progress."
- Esper said he'd be comfortable with a troop reduction in the shorter-term to about 8,600, from 12,000.
Between the lines: Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell told Axios last year that the negotiations are a “charade” designed to provide the U.S. a “face-saving way out of Afghanistan."
The bottom line: But leaders from both parties, including the Democratic presidential candidates, are weary of the war and looking for a way out. Polls suggest Americans tend to consider the war a failure.