Army Awaits Afghanistan Guidance as Trump Talks Withdrawal

Soldiers from the 1-108th Cavalry Regiment of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team move to a meeting site during a key leader engagement in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, February 16th, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Jordan Trent)
Soldiers from the 1-108th Cavalry Regiment of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team move to a meeting site during a key leader engagement in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan, February 16th, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Jordan Trent)

The Army has yet to receive any guidance on future troop rotations to Afghanistan, or the fate of Afghans who worked closely with U.S. military, in the event that President Donald Trump orders a withdrawal, Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said Tuesday.

"We have not received any direct orders to do anything," he said, even as Trump speaks openly about a possible drawdown following the latest round of peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Should the orders come, "we'll have to make an adjustment" to any future troop rotations, and make decisions about which troops will come out first, McCarthy said.

He added that there has been no guidance as yet on how the Army would deal with Afghan interpreters and others who worked closely with U.S. ground and Special Forces units and could be at risk of retaliation should the U.S. leave.

"That's a tough question. That's why these things are so hard [to prepare for]," said McCarthy, who served in Afghanistan with the 75th Ranger Regiment. He said the decisions are up to policymakers, and the military will follow the policy.

McCarthy spoke at a session with reporters following an address and question-and-answer session at a forum at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank.

At the White House on Tuesday, Trump again said that the U.S. has been in Afghanistan "long enough" and he is seeking conditions in a possible peace deal that would allow for at least partial withdrawals of the estimated 14,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan.

He suggested that a contingent of U.S. troops would remain indefinitely under any peace arrangement. The U.S. will be "bringing some of our troops back, but we have to have a presence" to provide stability in a volatile region, he said.

"We've been a peacekeeper there, in a way, for 19 years and, at a certain point, you have to say that's long enough," Trump said.

The U.S. will continue negotiating on the conditions that would permit a withdrawal, and "we'll see what happens," he added.

Following the latest round of peace talks with the Taliban, led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump met at his Bedminster, New Jersey, estate last weekend on the way forward in Afghanistan with Khalilzad, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford and others.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post and other outlets reported that troop withdrawals could begin as early as next month.

In response, Navy Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement, "Our strategy in Afghanistan is conditions-based. Our troops will remain in Afghanistan at appropriate levels so long as their presence is required to safeguard U.S. interests."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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