Trump assesses pre-election foreign policy speech revealing intention to withdraw more troops from Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is considering a broad foreign policy speech ahead of the Nov. 3 election and urged members of his national security team to speed up specific initiatives he may highlight in his remarks, such as troop withdrawals Americans in Afghanistan, according to two senior administration officials and a former official briefed on the conversations.

The administration has made public its intention to reduce the U.S. presence to 4,500 troops by November, but officials said a decision to cut to 3,000 or fewer by early 2021 has already been made. Trump has discussed with aides the idea of ​​using the speech to announce the further decline, officials say.

Trump’s advisers, however, publicly and privately rejected his request for a full withdrawal by January.

“I don’t think anyone thinks we will be at zero by the end of the year,” a senior administration official said.

President Donald Trump addresses troops during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to Bagram Air Field, November 28, 2019 in Afghanistan.Olivier Douliery / AFP – Getty Images file

The speech under discussion at the White House would focus on Trump’s Chinese policy, his administration’s negotiations with Russia on a new nuclear weapons deal, and his comprehensive strategy for US competition with other world powers, said the responsibles. It would also describe Trump’s efforts in the Middle East, especially his administration’s success in facilitating normalized relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors.

Officials said Trump would use this moment to present himself as the first president in a decade not to drag the United States into a new military conflict, emphasizing his efforts to bring American troops home. war zones and the campaign to defeat ISIS.

No final decision has been made on when or where to make such a speech, officials said. The president’s team also hasn’t decided whether it will be a campaign speech or an official White House event, an official said.

Making a foreign policy speech in the final weeks of the 2020 campaign would be designed to compare Trump’s record to that of Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Biden has been at the forefront of US foreign policy as a US senator for more than three decades and vice president for eight years. He emphasized his knowledge of foreign affairs and his experience on the world stage. He said he supported a withdrawal from Afghanistan based on the conditions on the ground.

He recently told Stars and Stripes that he could not promise to withdraw his troops completely from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but he expressed support for a smaller number of troops for counter operations. terrorism. He said there should be a maximum of “1,500 to 2,000” troops in Afghanistan.

A new start

Trump also criticized Biden’s approach to China. Biden has vowed as a presidential candidate to pursue aggressive Chinese policies if elected and to push back on what he has described as Beijing’s unfair trade practices.

The president launched a trade war with China and sought a new deal, but after an initial deal, the talks stalled. Trump initially praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of the coronavirus, but is now strongly critical of it.

Biden and Trump take opposing positions on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, which was negotiated under the Obama-Biden administration. Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA in 2018.

Officials said they expected a speech by Trump to highlight the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, called the Abraham Accords, as well as troop cuts in Iraq, Syria and in Afghanistan.

Trump could argue that the number of US troops overseas has increased steadily for decades while Biden served in Washington, although as vice president Biden has often argued for a smaller US troop footprint.

Biden oversaw the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq in 2011, which critics say created the conditions for ISIS’s rise to power.

Trump has repeatedly declared the end of ISIS’s caliphate during his presidency, but ISIS continues to be active in the region. Its strategy against ISIS was an acceleration of that adopted by the Obama administration, and its abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria was seen by military leaders as jeopardizing the gains. against ISIS. Its first Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, resigned following the decision.

Trump also said his diplomatic action in North Korea avoided another war, a line he could repeat in a foreign policy speech. Negotiations between the United States and North Korea stalled and Kim Jong Un continued to oppose the United States

A Trump administration official said on Tuesday that the United States and Russia had reached “an agreement in principle” to extend a current arms treaty, New START, which Trump could present as a victory in a speech. Speaking to the Heritage Foundation think tank, US negotiator Amb. Marshall Billingslea has said the United States is ready to extend the new START if Russia agrees to a freeze on its nuclear arsenal.

In the August NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll, voters favored Biden over Trump 49% to 39% when asked who would be better at managing foreign policy. A September Pew Research Center survey showed that over the past year, confidence in the United States among American allies has continued to decline.

‘Home at Christmas’

Trump has pushed his advisers since coming to power to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

At a recent White House meeting, the issue was raised again, officials said, and Trump lobbied to bring all U.S. forces home. But military advisers, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, have pleaded for maintaining a so-called residual force in Afghanistan to defend the large US embassy in Kabul and conduct counterterrorism missions, according to two senior administration officials and an official defense.

Growing frustrated with the pushback, Trump made his point known on Twitter. “We should have the remaining few of our BRAVE men and women stationed in Afghanistan by Christmas!” Trump wrote last week.

Trump’s public statement was intended “to start a fire under the commanders,” a senior administration official said.

The president also dispatched National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to publicly place a marker, officials said. O’Brien previewed the president’s decision to cut to around 2,500 in early 2021 during a speech at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last week, saying, “We think Americans need to go home. them. “

Two senior administration officials said the decision to cut to between 2,500 and 3,000 by early 2021 has already been made and military planners are currently working on options. But they said there were still no plans for a full withdrawal.

The Pentagon has not made new plans for a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of December, senior administration and defense officials said. And no order has been given by the president to the military to come up with such a plan, officials said. But a senior administration official said the administration was encouraged by intra-Afghan negotiations, and if these were successful, more US troops could return home before the end of the year.

But the current 8,600 to 4,500 withdrawal comes as the Taliban continue to violate the February 2020 peace agreement by attacking the Afghan national security forces.

In February, the United States and the Taliban reached a landmark deal in Doha, agreeing that foreign troops would leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for various Taliban guarantees, including a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.

Trump has told his advisers he wants as many soldiers as possible in their home for the holidays, the official said. In reality, 2,500 troops are as low as the United States plans to go for now, and efforts are being made to convince Trump to equate that to essentially zero, officials said.

A US military official has warned that if Trump does not win re-election, any further withdrawal plans will be called into question. “Any decision will have to be reassessed if Biden wins the election,” the official said.

US military leaders continue to maintain that any withdrawal from Afghanistan would be based on conditions on the ground. In an interview with NPR on Sunday, Milley said the current plan was to cut to 4,500 by November.

“It’s a conditions-based plan,” he said, adding that the United States continues to monitor these conditions.

Although the Taliban has not attacked the Americans or coalition forces since the signing of the agreement, their attacks on the Afghan security forces (ANDSF) have continued and sometimes accelerated.

On Monday, the spokesperson for US forces in Afghanistan said via Twitter that the US had carried out “several targeted strikes in Helmand to defend ANDSF forces attacked by Taliban fighters.”

General Scott Miller, the commanding general, wrote: “The Taliban must immediately end their offensive actions in Helmand province and reduce their violence across the country. This is not in line with the US-Taliban accord and undermines the ongoing Afghan peace talks. ”

Since the signing, US forces in Afghanistan have carried out further strikes against the Taliban to defend the Afghans, but a defense official said the strikes in the past few days were by far the largest number of engagements, or the most concentrated number of strikes.

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