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Pompeo: Trump directed aides to reduce US troops in Afghanistan by 2020 election

President Donald Trump speaks Thursday, July 25, 2019, outside the Pentagon during an ceremony honoring his new secretary of defense, Mark Esper, who was sworn in as Pentagon chief on Tuesday.

COREY DICKSTEIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By JOHN HUDSON | The Washington Post | Published: July 29, 2019

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that President Donald Trump ordered him to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the 2020 election, in some of the clearest comments to date about Trump’s intentions for winding down the nearly 18-year-old conflict.

“That’s my directive from the president of the United States. He’s been unambiguous: End the endless wars. Draw down. Reduce. It won’t just be us,” said Pompeo, speaking at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

Pompeo also suggested that a troop withdrawal is connected to how the president views his job performance, saying a reduction of forces is “not only my expectation, it would be job-enhancing.”

“We hope that overall the need for combat forces in the region is reduced,” Pompeo added.

Trump privately and publicly has expressed frustration with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan and continued violence as the Taliban conduct near daily attacks across the country even as it explores a peace resolution with U.S. diplomats to end America’s longest war.

The latest flare-up occurred Sunday with an assault on the office of the Afghan president’s running mate and former intelligence chief, resulting in the deaths of at least 20 people, according to the Associated Press. No one immediately asserted responsibility for the attack.

Military officials have said that the Pentagon has voiced its concerns about a precipitous withdrawal, but Trump has empowered his special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to reach a deal that allows for a reduction of forces in the country and the ability to continue counterterrorism operations, said officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

In the first year of his presidency, Trump’s advisers urged him to increase the U.S. troop presence in the country, arguing that it is necessary to prevent a total takeover by the Taliban, who currently control about half the country. They also reiterated worries that the country again could become a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the U.S. In heeding his advisers’ warnings, Trump increased troop levels, but noted that it went against his instincts.

“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically, I like following my instincts,” Trump said in an address on Afghanistan in August 2017. “But all my life, I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”

With little progress to show in the country after more than two years in office, Trump has expressed frustration with his advisers. On Monday, Pompeo described a resolution the president was seeking concerning the war.

“We think there’s a path to reduce violence, achieve reconciliation and still make sure that the American counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan has value and the potential to reduce risk in the United States,” Pompeo said.

The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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