Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Monday restated the military's commitment to a conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite President Donald Trump's suggestion last week of a pullout by Christmas.
Milley did not specifically rebut Trump's suggestion, made in a Twitter post last Wednesday. Instead, he pointed to the Feb. 28 agreement with the Taliban on a possible U.S. withdrawal by next May -- and only then if there is a cease-fire and a signed peace deal with the Kabul government.
"We have a plan, a series of responsible drawdown options, that has been briefed to the president," Milley said in a lengthy interview with NPR, which aired in two segments.
At the time of the Feb. 28 agreement, reached in difficult negotiations in Doha, Qatar, "We had, roughly speaking, about 12,000, a little bit better, U.S. troops in Afghanistan," Milley said.
Those numbers were reduced to about 8,500 by mid-summer, he added.
"We're on a plan to do a responsible, deliberate drawdown to about 4,500 here very shortly," Milley said. "And then future drawdowns will be determined by the president, and I'm not going to disclose specific numbers and what those are."
But the drawdowns would be based on conditions on the ground and whether the Taliban is living up to commitments to cease attacks and break ties with al-Qaida, he explained.
Trump appeared to catch his own national security team off guard last Wednesday with his Twitter post: "We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!"
Earlier Wednesday, White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien told an audience at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be down to 2,500 by early next year.
"When President Trump took office, there were over 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan," he said. "As of today, there are under 5,000, and that will go to 2,500 by early next year."
Milley wouldn't commit to the 2,500 number by early next year.
"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," he said.
He cited the conditions that the Taliban agreed to in the Feb. 28 negotiations.
"One of those conditions is -- enter Afghan negotiations," Milley said. "Those are ongoing right now. That's important.
"Another one is not attacking U.S. forces; not conducting major attacks in the major urban areas of Afghanistan; severing ties with al-Qaida. And there's a whole variety of other conditions," he added. "So we're monitoring all of those conditions closely."
Trump's suggestion that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan could end by Christmas triggered a flurry of reports on whether the Taliban is now rooting for his re-election.
Over the weekend, the Taliban sought to walk back a statement of support for Trump in November while continuing to endorse the full withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In response to Trump's Twitter post last week on troop withdrawals, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was quoted as telling CBS News, "We hope he will win the election and wind up U.S. military presence in Afghanistan."
In his own Twitter post Sunday, Mujahid said CBS "has interpreted and published my remarks incorrectly. Nothing of the sort has been communicated as publicized by them."
In response, CBS on Sunday published another report on the Mujahid phone interview with an editor's note acknowledging that the initial quote attributed to him was actually said by another unnamed senior Taliban official.
However, the CBS report added additional quotes from the Mujahid interview that appeared to back Trump's reelection.
"We believe that Trump is going to win the upcoming election because he has proved himself a politician who accomplished all the major promises he had made to American people, although he might have missed some small things," CBS reported Mujahid as saying.
Mujahid added that Trump "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," according to the CBS report. "Other politicians, including [former Vice President Joe] Biden, chant unrealistic slogans."
In a statement Saturday to CBS and Axios, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh dismissed the Taliban spokesman's comments.
"We reject their support, and the Taliban should know that the president will always protect American interests by any means necessary, unlike Joe Biden, who opposed taking out Osama bin Laden and Qasem Soleimani," Murtaugh said.
Trump has repeatedly said his goal is to keep U.S. forces out of "endless wars," but his tweet about the possibility of bringing troops in Afghanistan home by Christmas brought a mixed reaction.
Afghan officials expressed concern at the seeming contradictions in U.S. policy as Afghan security forces face continuing attacks from the Taliban, which have dimmed prospects for a cease-fire and peace settlement.
In an interview Saturday with India's Asian News International news agency, Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the Kabul government's High Council for National Reconciliation, said, "Our hope is that we make progress in the negotiations so there will be no need for international troops. … Premature withdrawal -- will it have an impact or not? Certainly."
But Nate Anderson, executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, said in a statement, "Not only is this what the American people want, it's what our men and women in uniform deserve. An American troop presence in Afghanistan serves no national interest, but it keeps our troops in harm's way and wastes taxpayer dollars without making us safer or more prosperous."
At the Brookings Institution, senior fellow and military analyst Michael O'Hanlon wrote last Friday, "Perhaps sensing electoral doom and looking for a Hail Mary, President Trump recently tweeted that U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be home by Christmas."
Following a Christmas withdrawal, "we would have to expect a multi-pronged Taliban attack similar to the Viet Cong's Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, designed to intimidate the ruling Afghan classes into flight or capitulation, and the security forces into dissolution," he added.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.