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Top U.S. general casts doubt on Trump's Christmas troop withdrawal timeline for Afghanistan

Washington — The U.S. withdrawal of more troops from Afghanistan will depend on a reduction in violence and other conditions agreed in February with the Taliban, the Pentagon's top general said in an interview broadcast Monday. Five days after President Donald Trump said all U.S. forces "should" be home by Christmas, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley stressed to NPR radio that pulling out the final 4,500 troops depends on the Taliban reducing attacks and advancing peace talks with the Kabul government.

President Trump Gets Briefed By Senior Military Leadership At White House
President Trump speaks during a briefing from senior military leaders regarding Syria, in the Cabinet Room, on April 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Also pictured is Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Mark Milley (L), Vice President Mike Pence, (2nd-L), and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton (R). Mark Wilson/Getty

"The whole agreement and all of the drawdown plans are conditions-based," Milley told NPR. "The key here is that we're trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately, and to do it on terms that guarantee the safety of the U.S. vital national security interests that are at stake in Afghanistan."

Milley noted that U.S. troop levels had already dropped from 12,000 in the wake of the February pact, which required negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul and a sharp cut in violence.

"That's always been the agreement. That was the decision of the president on a conditions-based withdrawal," Milley said. He said violence was well down from several years ago, but the decline in the last four to five months is "not significant."

The Pentagon has envisaged holding the level at around 4,500, expected to be reached by November, into 2021 while it sees how the negotiations in Doha progress. 

But policy signals from Washington have been confused.

Last week Mr. Trump's national security advisor, Robert O'Brien, said troops would be cut to 2,500 by early next year.

But on Wednesday Mr. Trump tweeted that the U.S. "should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!"

He made the remark in the context of his uphill battle for reelection on November 3, and a full withdrawal in that short amount of time is seen as logistically impractical and could weaken Kabul in its direct peace talks with the Taliban.

H.R. McMaster on Trump's Afghanistan policy 00:44

The Taliban, meanwhile, made it clear that its key objective appears largely aligned with Mr. Trump's: Getting American forces out of Afghanistan.

"We hope he will win the election and wind up U.S. military presence in Afghanistan," a senior Taliban official told CBS News' Sami Yousafzai last week.

The group's official spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said in a separate interview with Yousafzai that the insurgents expected Mr. Trump to win, "because he has proved himself a politician who accomplished all the major promises he had made to American people."

"He might have missed some small things, but did accomplish the bigger promises, so it is possible that the U.S. people who experienced deceptions in the past will once again trust Trump for his decisive actions," Mujahid said.

President Trump has promised for years to extract American forces from "endless wars" in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

One of the conditions in the U.S.-Taliban agreement was for the insurgents to halt attacks on urban areas.

But over the weekend heavy fighting erupted on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, and U.S. forces launched air strikes on Taliban fighters.

Afghan and Taliban leaders hold first meeting... 07:41

Milley declined to talk about specific numbers, saying future drawdowns "will be determined by the president."

"We the military are giving our best military advice on those conditions so that the president can make an informed, deliberate, responsible decision," he said.

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