Bounties Uproar Casts a Shadow Over a Rare Trump Foreign Policy Achievement

President Donald Trump addresses troops at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 28, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

For a president with few tangible foreign policy accomplishments under his belt, Afghanistan had arrive at look something such as a bright spot.

His nuclear talks with North Korea have proved fruitless; his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has produced no concessions from Tehran; Palestinians declared his Middle East peace plan dead on arrival; and a trade cope with China looks more unlikely every day.

But while President Donald Trump have not achieved his goal of a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he’s drawn down thousands of U.S. troops and struck a cope with the Taliban intended to pave the way for a complete exit and an end to the 19-year conflict.

Now the uproar over U.S. intelligence showing that Russia paid bounties for the killings of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is renewing concentrate on a conflict that had drifted to the political back burner and turning what have been a qualified success story for the president in to at least a short-term political disaster.

What remains to be viewed is whether, and how, the episode might affect Trump’s future plans. The military recently finished drawing down troops in Afghanistan from about 14,000 last fall to roughly 8,600. That may be the minimum level that military commanders say allows them to prevent the Taliban along with other radical fighters from overrunning the shaky, U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul.

But with the November election coming, military officials say they truly are braced for Trump to announce anytime his intention to pull thousands more troops from the country before then.

One person familiar with the president’s thinking said he previously repeatedly spoken of having all U.S. soldiers out from the country by the end of the year. That prospect can become even more likely now that the United States’ continuing presence in Afghanistan has defectively stung a president who lost patience with the U.S. mission there long ago but also for years has found himself pressured to remain by congressional and military leaders invoking the specter of still another attack in the mold of Sept. 11.

The debate over what Trump officials knew concerning the intelligence on Russian bounties and when is “ignoring the bigger picture here,” said Dan Caldwell, senior adviser of Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that opposes U.S. troop deployments overseas. “The bigger problem,” he added, “is that by leaving our troops not only in places like Afghanistan but also in Iraq and Syria, we make it easier for our adversaries like Russia, Iran and nonstate actors like al-Qaida to bleed us on the cheap.”

Trump has called stories concerning the bounties “a made up Fake News Media Hoax” and studiously avoided commenting on the substance of the intelligence, including how it could change his policies toward either Russia or Afghanistan. But however willing he may be to overlook or downplay Russian aggression worldwide as he seeks to thaw relations with Moscow, it appears likely that the political grief he’s suffered will simply fuel his desire to withdraw troops from the country.

Trump’s patience with the conflict has been steadily waning recently, and that he was especially angry after two U.S. soldiers were killed when a member of Afghanistan’s security forces opened fire on U.S. troops during a joint patrol in early February. Days later, Trump, who has often remarked on the responsibility of writing military condolence letters, traveled to Dover Air Force Base to witness the return of the soldiers’ remains, a somber nighttime ceremony chillingly punctured by a widow’s desperate screams.

The recently published book by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton confirms what is becoming increasingly obvious. Bolton recounts numerous occasions when Trump, making liberal utilization of expletives, asked his exasperated advisers when he could possibly be finished with the country. “We’ve got to get out of there,” Bolton recalls Trump saying in March 2019.

Trump took a key step in that direction Feb. 29, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a Taliban leader signed an agreement in Qatar under that the U.S. would begin a phased troop withdrawal in exchange for a halt in Taliban attacks on U.S. forces and the beginning of political talks involving the insurgent group and the Afghan government.

The signing came just days after officials say intelligence about the Russian bounties appeared in Trump’s daily intelligence briefing. Some Trump officials were concerned that the intelligence could jeopardize the Taliban deal. Whether because of this or the others, officials say Trump wasn’t verbally briefed about it during the time.

That agreement has been plagued with setbacks, including an unwelcome escalation in Taliban attacks on Afghan targets, an exchange of prisoners involving the Taliban and the Afghan government which has taken months longer than expected, and an Afghan election with disputed results that paralyzed the country’s government.

In one sign that Trump is decided to press ahead, Pompeo spoke by video conference Monday with the Taliban’s deputy and chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, “to discuss implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” in accordance with a State Department spokeswoman.

“The secretary made clear the expectation for the Taliban to live up to their commitments, which include not attacking Americans,” added the spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus. (There is no indication that U.S. intelligence has tied Russian bounties to any attacks on Americans because the agreement was signed or that the Taliban’s senior leadership was aware of them.)

All the while, however, U.S. troops have been on the way out. And while Afghanistan continues to suffer horrific attacks like a May assault on a maternity ward in Kabul, there is certainly little evidence that American voters, whose support for the war has long been waning, feel any less safe.

“Certainly there’s a political resonance for the notion that, after all these years, President Trump will end the war that other presidents were unwilling to end,” said Richard Fontaine, ceo of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based policy group.

Fontaine cautions against a withdrawal of troops, reminiscent of the U.S. exit from Iraq in 2011, which could allow militants to rampage and terrorists to find safe haven as al-Qaida did in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.

For now, that view has significant support in Congress. On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee voted 45-11 to approve a bipartisan amendment to an annual defense authorization bill that would restrict funds for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan below the degree of 8,000.

One of the amendment’s co-sponsors, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican, warned in a statement that “the U.S.-Taliban deal allows for premature troop withdrawal that is not conditions-based.”

A Senate effort from the contrary perspective met a swift rebuke the exact same day. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. and something of Congress’ leading noninterventionist voices, co-sponsored an amendment with Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year. The Senate voted 60-33 to table the amendment.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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