A Marine in Afghanistan holds a holiday card received from a grade school in Maryland, Dec. 22, 2018.

A Marine in Afghanistan holds a holiday card received from a grade school in Maryland, Dec. 22, 2018. Marine Corps Sgt. Olivia G. Ortiz

Thousands of US Troops Will Remain in Afghanistan Past Christmas

They won't be home for Christmas. Trump's national security advisor says the president was only expressing a "desire" with that tweet.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on Friday said that some 2,500 U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond Christmas, seeking to clarify a series of mixed messages from senior Trump administration officials and dismissing a tweet from the president last week.

He also took a direct shot at Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who in an NPR interview on Sunday appeared to suggest that a previous announcement by O’Brien about the withdrawal plan was only “speculation,” without any real authority behind it. 

"It has been suggested by some that that's speculation. I can guarantee you that's the plan of the president of the United States,” O’Brien said. “That's the order of the commander-in-chief, that's not speculation."

The re-announcement, during an online appearance with the Aspen Institute, capped off a week of contradictory messages that began with O’Brien announcing on Oct. 7 that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan would fall to 2,500 in early 2021. Just hours later, President Donald Trump tweeted that all U.S. troops “should” be home by Christmas. Both announcements caught the Pentagon, Afghanistan, and allies by surprise, and two days later, Milley told NPR that “Robert O'Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit” about troop levels, but “I'm going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”

O’Brien reiterated on Friday that the United States intends to draw down to 2,500 troops in early 2021. Asked directly about the three contradictory answers, O’Brien said that Trump’s tweet was merely expressing wishes of  any wartime president.

“He was expressing the same desire that every president since the Revolutionary War has said. All presidents, all GIs, want the troops home by Christmas,” he said. “We’re on a path right now that looks like about 4,500 this fall and a smaller number in January or February — but if the conditions permit it, we’d love to get people out earlier.”

Another complicating factor is Trump’s chances of reelection next month, a prospect O’Brien called “tough” even as he listed the administration's foreign policy goals and plans for the next four years. In past presidential transitions since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the incumbent deferred major strategy changes and troop movements to the incoming new commander in chief.

Aspen moderator Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor for President George W. Bush and one of the architects of the Iraq War, led the conversation Friday. But O’Brien was not asked about the administration’s mixed messages on Afghanistan war troop withdrawals until later, by Financial Times’ Edward Luce. O’Brien suggested that it was Milley, not he, who spoke without the authority of the president behind him. 

"It's not my practice to speculate. Other people can interpret what I say as speculation, but...when I'm speaking, I'm speaking for the president,” O’Brien said. “And I think that's what the Pentagon is moving out and doing.”

Over the past six months, the United States reduced the number of its troops in Afghanistan first to about 8,600, in accordance with a deal brokered with the Taliban and signed in February. That deal envisioned the immediate drawdown from 14,000 to 8,600 troops by the summer, and a complete U.S. withdrawal within 14 months, if the Taliban lived up to their end of it. 

Trump and other officials previously have said that the number of United States troops in Afghanistan would be down to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops around November, and that any subsequent withdrawal would be conditions-based. 

But Trump has made it clear that he wants the United States out of Afghanistan, rarely speaking publicly about what “conditions” would be necessary to carry out that withdrawal and instead emphasizing the length of the conflict and complaining that U.S. soldiers are acting as “police” in the war torn country. 

Former and current administration officials have described him as eager to pull out by November in order to fulfill a key campaign promise from the 2016 election.