Military walks a fine line in discussing Afghanistan after Trump orders withdrawal plans

© Getty JAGHATU, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 9: An American soldier walks makes his way though the base after a joint mortar training with the Afghan Army, at Combat Outpost Jaghatu, Afghanistan on September 9, 2012. (Photo by Lorenzo Tugnoli/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By Dan Lamothe ,  The Washington Post 
A week after President Trump directed the military to draw up plans to withdraw about half the U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, military officials are walking a fine line detailing the future of the longest U.S. war in history.

Trump pressed White House national security adviser John Bolton to make the move Dec. 18, and he and other U.S. officials were trying to talk him out of it, administration officials said. Since then, no announcements have been made, and senior U.S. military officers have said they have received no new orders.

The situation has put the U.S. generals in the awkward position of attempting to downplay the significance of a potential reduction in U.S. troops in Afghanistan while American diplomats try to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. They must do so just weeks ahead of Trump’s State of the Union address, slated for Jan. 22, an event at which presidents often roll out new policy plans.

Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, have dismissed the reports as “rumors.” Miller, speaking to Afghan officials in Nangahar province Sunday, said he had no new orders, “so nothing changed.”

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"We are the same today as we were yesterday, and we’ll be the same tomorrow,” Miller said, speaking in a room in which a camera from the largest Afghan TV station, Tolo News, was allowed.

“But if I do get orders, I think it’s important for you to know that we are still with the security forces," Miller added, according to a transcript. "Even if I have to get a little bit smaller, we’ll be okay. We’ve thought about this before, and we will be able to do the things that you require in terms of support.”

Dunford, speaking to U.S. troops during a holiday visit Monday, had a nearly identical message for a different audience.

“There’s all kinds of rumors swirling around,” Dunford said, according to a Stars and Stripes report. “The mission you have today is the same as the mission you had yesterday.”

Dunford added that “when there is something else to tell you,” he would make sure that Miller knows “in real time what changes may be taking place."

Last week, Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria, a decision that led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Trump, making his first visit to U.S. troops in a war zone, said Wednesday in Iraq that “America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on Earth not being reimbursed, in many cases, at all.” But he did not discuss plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan.

“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump said, speaking at al-Asad Air Base. “And people aren’t looking at us as suckers. And I love you folks, because most of you are nodding your head this way. We’re respected again as a nation. We’re respected again.”

For months, U.S. military officials privately have discussed the possibility of Trump growing impatient with the plan he approved for Afghanistan in August 2017. It consisted of modestly boosting the number of U.S. troops by about 3,500 to more than 14,000, loosening rules so the U.S. military could carry out more airstrikes against militants and saying that the United States would not set a timetable to withdraw troops unless the conditions on the ground merited it.

The U.S. military has continued to strike militant targets and train Afghan forces, but hundreds of Afghan troops per month have been killed in 2018, and many areas of the countryside have fallen under control of the Taliban.

If Trump proceeds with cutting U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan, many of the remaining forces are likely to focus on counterterrorism operations or supporting forces that carry them out. It is less clear what will happen to units such as Task Force Southwest, a contingent of about 300 Marines who are attempting to bolster the Afghan army in Helmand province.

Gen. Robert B. Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, said last week that he was still waiting for information.

“I don’t think anybody really knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Neller said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “I’ve read the same stuff in the newspaper you did. I have a little more knowledge than that but not a whole lot more.”