Trump eyes May 2021 for total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

By Tony Bertuca / September 22, 2020 at 12:28 PM

A senior Pentagon official told lawmakers today the Trump administration has begun planning for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2021.

The Defense Department is "conducting prudent planning to withdraw to zero service members by May 2021 if conditions warrant and the Taliban have met their commitments, per the U.S.-Taliban agreement," David Helvey, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the House Oversight and Reform national security subcommittee today.

By November, DOD plans to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 8,600 to between 4,000 and 5,000. Helvey stressed that DOD has not yet issued orders to reduce military personnel below that level.

"We remain firmly committed to our counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan as well as to our Afghan partners," Helvey said.

Still, U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad told the subcommittee that levels of violence in Afghanistan remain unacceptable and have contributed to halting ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.

"By any measure, current levels of violence are too high," he said.

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), who chairs the subcommittee, said the United States must remain "clear-eyed about the stakes of the moment."

"If the Taliban are unwilling or unable to abide by their commitments, or if political negotiations collapse, the resulting crisis would likely have grave consequences for the Afghan people, regional stability, and international security," he said. "While we are all eager for our sons and daughters in uniform to return home, it is also important that we do not needlessly or recklessly bargain away the rights and freedoms that the Afghan people have gained at such a huge cost in American, Coalition, and Afghan lives."

America's war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 and has cost the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops.

President Trump has long voiced his desire to stop the "endless" war in Afghanistan and withdraw the United States from other Middle East conflicts and has made it part of his campaign for re-election.

But Trump's plan has been criticized by retired military leaders, including his former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.

"Well, I think what he did with this new policy, is he, in effect, is partnering with the Taliban against, in many ways, the Afghan government," McMaster said during a 60 Minutes interview. "And so, I think that it's an unwise policy. And I think what we require in Afghanistan is a sustained commitment to help the Afghan government and help the Afghan security forces continue to bear the brunt of this fight."

Trump reiterated his position in an interview with Axios last month.

"I’ve always said we will get largely out," he said. "I've done things that no other president has done. We should have never been in the Middle East. To get into the Middle East was the single biggest mistake made in the history of our country."