Appointed in the final days of Trump’s presidency to remove all US troops from Afghanistan, Douglas Macgregor tells The Grayzone how military leadership undermined the withdrawal and pressured Trump to capitulate.
In an exclusive interview with The Grayzone, Col. Douglas Macgregor, a former senior advisor to the acting secretary of defense, revealed that President Donald Trump shocked the US military only days after the election last November by signing a presidential order calling for the withdrawal of all remaining US troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.
As Macgregor explained to The Grayzone, the order to withdraw was met with intense pressure from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Gen. Mark M. Milley, which caused the president to capitulate. Trump agreed to withdraw only half of the 5,000 remaining troops in the country. Neither Trump’s order nor the pressure from the JCS chairman was reported by the national media at the time.
The president’s surrender represented the Pentagon’s latest victory in a year-long campaign to sabotage the US-Taliban peace agreement signed in February 2020. Military and DOD leaders thus extended the disastrous and unpopular 20-year US war in Afghanistan into the administration of President Joe Biden.
A peace agreement the Pentagon was determined to subvert
The subversion of the peace agreement with the Taliban initiated by the US military leadership in Washington and Afghanistan began almost as soon as Trump’s personal envoy Zalmay Khalilzad negotiated a tentative deal in November 2019. The campaign to undermine presidential authority was actively supported by then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
In February 2020, under heavy pressure to amend the agreement, Trump ordered Khalilzad to deliver the Taliban an ultimatum: agree to a full ceasefire as a prelude to a broader peace deal, including negotiations with the Afghan government, or the deal was off. The Taliban refused the immediate ceasefire with Kabul, however, offering instead a “reduction in violence” for seven days to establish a conducive atmosphere for implementing the peace agreement that had already been fleshed out in detail. It then gave the US its own ultimatum: if the US refused the offer, its negotiators would walk away from the table.
To salvage the deal, Khalilzad agreed to the Taliban proposal for a one-week “reduction of violence” by both sides. The adversaries reached further understandings on what such a “reduction in violence” would mean: the Taliban agreed there would be no attacks on population centers and Afghan stationary military targets, but reserved the right to attack government convoys if they exploited the reduction to seize control of new areas.
The US-Taliban peace agreement signed on February 29 called for a withdrawal of US troops from the country in two stages. First, the US agreed to reduce its troop levels to 8600 within 4.5 months and remove forces from five military bases ahead of a final withdrawal that would take place in May 2021. Second, the US and its allies pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Afghanistan or intervening in its domestic affairs.”
The Taliban promised in turn that it would “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Those two commitments obliged US and Taliban forces not to attack each other. The agreement also specified that the Taliban would enter into “intra-Afghan negotiations on March 10, 2020, after the two Afghan parties were to have exchanged prisoners.”
They also required the Taliban to keep al-Qaeda personnel out of Afghanistan – a pledge the Taliban military commission appeared to implement in February when it issued an order to all commanders forbidding them from “bringing foreign nationals into their ranks or giving them shelter.”
But the pact did not provide for the immediate ceasefire between Taliban and Afghan government forces which the U.S. military and Pentagon demanded. Instead “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire” was to be negotiated between the two Afghan parties.
With startling swiftness and determination, Pentagon officials and military leadership exploited the open-ended terms of the ceasefire to derail the implementation of the agreement.
Secretary of Defense Esper claimed the peace deal allowed the US military to defend Afghan forces, blatantly contradicting the agreement’s text. He then pledged to come to the defense of the Afghan government if the Taliban began mounting attacks on its forces, setting the stage for American violations on the ground.
Esper’s promise of continued US military support, made public in Congressional testimony days later, gave the Afghan government a clear incentive to refuse any concessions to the Taliban. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani promptly refused to go ahead with a promised prisoner exchange until formal negotiations with the Taliban had begun.
The Taliban responded by initiating a series of attacks on government troops at checkpoints in contested areas. The US military command in Afghanistan responded with an airstrike against Taliban forces engaged in one of those operations in Helmand province. US officials said privately that the airstrike was “a message to the Taliban” to continue what they described as the “reduction in violence commitment they had agreed…”
The combination of Esper’s assurance to the Afghan government and the US airstrike showed the hand of the Pentagon and military leadership. It was clear they had no intention of passively accepting a deal to withdraw the remaining US personnel from Afghanistan, and would do whatever they could to unravel it.
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of Central Command, further highlighted the Pentagon’s opposition to the deal when he declared in congressional testimony that troop withdrawals would be determined by “conditions on the ground.” In other words, it was up to the judgment of military commanders, rather than the terms of the agreement, to determine when U.S. troops would be withdrawn.
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