Trump weighs pre-election foreign policy speech that reveals plan to pull more troops from Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is considering a sweeping foreign policy speech in advance of the Nov. 3 election and has been pressing members of his national security team to accelerate specific initiatives that he could highlight in his remarks, such as U.S. troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, according to two senior administration officials and a former official briefed on the conversations.

The administration has made public its plans to reduce the U.S. presence to 4,500 troops by November, but the officials said a decision to draw down to 3,000 or fewer troops by early 2021 has already been reached. Trump has discussed with aides the idea of using the speech to announce the additional decrease, say the officials.

Trump’s advisers have pushed back publicly and privately, however, on his demand for a full withdrawal by January.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who believes we’ll be at zero by the end of the year,” a senior administration official said.

President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on Nov. 28, 2019 in Afghanistan.Olivier Douliery / AFP – Getty Images file

The speech under discussion in the White House would focus on Trump’s China policy, his administration’s negotiations with Russia on a new nuclear arms agreement, and his overarching strategy for U.S. competition with other global powers, the officials said. It also would outline Trump’s efforts in the Middle East, in particular his administration’s success in facilitating normalized relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors.

The officials said Trump would use the moment to cast himself as the first president in a decade not to get the U.S. into a new military conflict, with an emphasis on his efforts to bring U.S. troops home from war zones and the campaign to defeat ISIS.

No final decision has been made on the timing of such a speech or a venue, officials said. The president’s team also hasn’t decided whether it would be a campaign speech or an official White House event, one official said.

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Delivering a foreign policy speech in the closing weeks of the 2020 campaign would be designed to contrast Trump’s record with that of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Biden was at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy as a U.S. senator for more than three decades and vice president for eight years. He has stressed his knowledge of foreign affairs and experience on the world stage. He has said he supports a drawdown in Afghanistan that’s based on conditions on the ground.

He recently told Stars and Stripes that he couldn’t promise to fully withdraw troops from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, but he expressed support for smaller numbers of troops for counterterrorism operations. He said there should be a maximum of “1,500 to 2,000” troops in Afghanistan.

A New START

President Trump has also been critical of Biden’s approach to China. Biden has promised as a presidential candidate to pursue an aggressive China policy if elected and push back on what he’s described as Beijing’s unfair trade practices.

The president initiated a trade war with China and sought a new agreement, but after an initial deal talks hit an impasse. Trump at first praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his handling of coronavirus, but is now sharply critical of it.

Biden and Trump have opposing positions on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, which was negotiated during the Obama-Biden administration. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in 2018.

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

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Trump could argue that the number of U.S. troops overseas steadily increased for decades while Biden was serving in Washington, though as vice president, Biden often advocated for a smaller U.S. troop footprint.

Biden oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which critics say created the conditions for the rise of ISIS.

Trump has repeatedly declared an end to the ISIS caliphate during his presidency, but ISIS continues to be active in the region. His strategy to combat ISIS was an acceleration of the one adopted by the Obama administration, and his abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria was seen by military leaders as potentially jeopardizing gains against ISIS. His first defense secretary, James Mattis, resigned over that decision.

Trump has also said his diplomatic outreach to North Korea has averted another war, a line he could he repeat in a foreign policy address. Negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have stalled, and Kim Jong Un has continued to antagonize the U.S.

A Trump administration official said Tuesday that the U.S. and Russia had reached “an agreement in principle” to extend a current arms treaty, New START, which Trump could tout as a win in a speech. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation think tank, U.S. negotiator Amb. Marshall Billingslea said the U.S. is willing to extend New START if Russia agrees to a freeze on its nuclear arsenal.

In August’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, voters preferred Biden to Trump 49 percent to 39 percent when asked who would be better at handling foreign policy. A September Pew Research Center survey showed that over the past year confidence in the U.S. among America’s allies continued to decline.

‘Home by Christmas’

Trump has pushed his advisers since taking office to draw down troops from Afghanistan.

During a recent White House meeting the issue came up again, officials said, and Trump pushed for bringing home all American forces. But military advisers, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, argued in favor of keeping a so-called residual force in Afghanistan to defend the large U.S. embassy in Kabul and conduct counterterrorism missions, according to two senior administration officials and a defense official.

Growing increasingly frustrated at the pushback, Trump made his views known on Twitter. “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” Trump wrote last week.

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

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The president also dispatched National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to publicly lay down a marker, officials said. O’Brien previewed the president’s decision to draw down to about 2,500 in early 2021 during a speech at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last week, saying: “We think Americans need to come home.”

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

The Pentagon has not drawn up any new plans for a complete U.S. withdrawal by the end of December, the 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, the officials said. But one senior administration official said the administration is encouraged by the intra-Afghan negotiations, and if those are successful, more U.S. troops could come home before the end of the year.

But the current drawdown from 8,600 to 4,500 comes as the Taliban continues to violate the February 2020 peace agreement by attacking the Afghan National Security Forces.

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

Trump has told his advisers he wants as many troops home for the holidays as possible, the official said. Realistically, 2,500 troops is as low as the U.S. plans to go for now, and there’s an effort to convince Trump to equate that essentially with zero, officials said.

A U.S. military official cautioned that if Trump does not win re-election, any plans for an additional drawdown would be thrown into doubt. “Any decision would have to be re-evaluated if Biden wins the election,” the official said.

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U.S. military leaders continue to argue that any drawdown in Afghanistan would be based on conditions on the ground. During an interview with NPR on Sunday, Milley said the current plan is to draw down to 4,500 by November.

“It’s a conditions-based plan,” he said, adding that the U.S. is continuing to monitor those conditions.

While the Taliban has not attacked Americans or coalition forces since the agreement was signed, their attacks against Afghan Security Forces (ANDSF) have continued and accelerated at times.

On Monday the spokesperson for U.S. Forces Afghanistan said via Twitter that the U.S. has conducted “several targeted strikes in Helmand to defend ANDSF forces under attack by Taliban fighters.”

General Scott Miller, the Commanding General, wrote, “The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country. It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace talks.”

Since the signing, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have conducted other strikes against the Taliban to defend the Afghans but a defense official said the strikes in the past few days are by far the largest number of engagements, or most concentrated number of strikes.

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