At least three people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a truck near an Afghan army base on August 25, in an attack claimed by the Taliban, officials said. Critics complain that the lame duck Trump administration's apparent efforts to hasten US troop departure removes any leverage that would force the Taliban to stop such attacks. Photo: AFP / Ministry of Defense Afghanistan

Newly appointed Pentagon chief Christopher Miller signaled Saturday that he could accelerate the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the Middle East, saying, “It’s time to come home.”

“All wars must end,” Miller, named acting defense secretary by President Donald Trump on Monday, said in his first message to the US armed services.

He said that the US is committed to defeating Al Qaeda, 19 years after the September 11 attacks on the United States, and is “on the verge of defeating” the group.

“Many are weary of war – I’m one of them,” he wrote in the message, dated Friday but posted early Saturday on the Defense Department’s website.

“But this is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role,” he said.

“Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

Miller did not mention specific US troop deployments, but the reference to Al Qaeda appeared to single out Afghanistan and Iraq, where US troops were deployed after the September 11 attacks.

Firings

The former US special forces officer and counterterrorism expert was named to lead the Department of Defense after Trump fired Mark Esper.

Trump, who lost to Democrat Joe Biden in the November 3 election, has been pressing to pull US forces out of both countries since he came into office four years ago.

Any such action would have to come in the 67 days before Biden takes office on January 20.

Esper cut US forces in Afghanistan by nearly two-thirds in the wake of the February 29 US-Taliban peace deal.

But, drawing a line, he said he would hold troop numbers at 4,500 after this month until the Taliban, as they negotiate with the government in Kabul, follow through on pledged reductions in violence.

Trump, however, has pushed for continued cuts, tweeting that he wants the troops “home by Christmas,” December 25. His national security advisor Robert O’Brien has said the goal is to cut to 2,500 by February. 

But critics say this removes any leverage on the Taliban insurgents to halt attacks that continue amid scant progress in their peace talks with the Afghan government.

Trump, who refuses to acknowledge loss to President-elect Joe Biden, in his campaign declared that he was winding down “endless wars” and his new loyalist picks to replace officials he’s fired are enthusiastic supporters of his position.

Biden broadly shares Trump’s desire to end America’s longest war, if not the same political calendar. But the timeline has caused alarm in some quarters, especially as there is little sign of progress in talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he would raise concerns about the precipitated US withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq when he meets Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday in Paris.

“We don’t think that should happen,” Le Drian, whose country is especially concerned about terrorism, said in a television interview.

Trump on Monday sacked Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who was known for his caution and had also opposed Trump’s use of troops at home against anti-racism protesters.

Pessimism

Miller, the acting defense secretary until Biden’s January 20 inauguration, is a former special forces lieutenant who had taken the reins at the National Counterterrorism Center just three months ago.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller speaks during a meeting with Minister of National Defense of Lithuania Raimundas Karoblis on November 13 at the Pentagon. Photo: AFP / Alex Wong / Getty Images

Quickly afterward, retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, an outspoken advocate of withdrawing from Afghanistan, was appointed senior advisor to the new acting defense secretary.

Macgregor – whom Trump nominated in July to be ambassador to Germany, although he is virtually certain not to be confirmed in time – had earlier voiced disappointment that Trump had not completed the pullout.

“It doesn’t make any difference when we leave; it’s all going to fall apart,” Macgregor said of Afghanistan earlier this year in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whose show Trump avidly watches.

“But the good news is that once we’re out, at least we will no longer be subsidizing the corruption and we will no longer subsidize Afghanistan as the global engine of heroin production, which it has become under our watch.”

Trump has not given reasons for the shakeup at the Pentagon, with some suggesting that his administration may simply want to pad the resumes of loyal aides in the final months.

But Senator Rand Paul, a Republican critic of foreign military intervention, hailed Macgregor’s appointment as a sign of determination on leaving Afghanistan.

“This and other picks for Pentagon are about getting the right people who will finally help him stop our endless wars,” Paul tweeted.

Military concerns

Trump has said he wants to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 in early 2021 and has mentioned a total withdrawal for Christmas, but military leadership has insisted on linking any withdrawal to a drop in violence on the ground.

Under an agreement signed in February with the Taliban, the United States expects to leave, subject to conditions, in mid-2021, nearly 20 years after the September 11, 2001 attacks that triggered the war.

Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley distanced himself from Trump’s precipitated timeline, which he called “speculation.”

Trump’s national security advisor Robert O’Brien quickly brought the top US military officer into line, saying that Trump’s dates were “the order of the commander in chief.”

Even if they are careful not to criticize the White House position openly, military leaders say there shouldn’t be fewer than 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan without proof the Taliban is stopping jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

The military want to link the withdrawal process to the level of violence on the ground and say that an orderly withdrawal – involving thousands of troops, equipment, heavy armaments and vehicles – cannot be done by January 20 without leaving behind military hardware that could fall into enemy hands.

Paul rejects the concerns, saying that there is “only one commander in chief” – Trump.

“When he orders the troops out of Afghanistan, the only proper answer is, ‘Yes, sir.'”

The Pentagon’s policy director, the third-ranking official in the sprawling bureaucracy, resigned one day after Esper’s ouster and was replaced by a staunch Trump supporter, Anthony Tata.

The retired brigadier general is a commentator on Fox News who is known for his tweets denouncing Islam and for calling former president Barack Obama – who as commander in chief authorized the raid that killed Osama bin Laden – a “terrorist leader.”

‘Mastermind’ captured

Afghan forces have captured the mastermind of two brutal attacks on education institutes in the country’s capital which killed nearly 50 people, officials said Saturday.

Mohammad Adel planned an attack on his alma mater Kabul University on November 2 and a bombing at another education center in October, officials said.

At least 22 people were killed and another 27 wounded when three gunmen rampaged through Kabul University, spraying classrooms with bullets for several hours.

Journalists stand inside a damaged classroom at the National Legal Training Center a day after gunmen stormed the university in Kabul on November 3,. At least 22 people were killed in a brutal, on-campus attack claimed by the Islamic State group. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

The brazen daylight assault came just days after 24 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Kawsar-e Danish education centre in the capital, which offered training and higher-education courses.

The attacks came amid surging violence across the country that has only worsened in recent months despite the government holding peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), said: “NDS special forces have detained Mohammad Adel, the main mastermind of Kabul University and Kawsar education center, in a targeted operation in Kabul.”

It did not say when Adel was captured.

Security sources said he was a former student of Kabul University.

During his interrogation, Adel told NDS officers that it was he who proposed the university attack as it “would get wide coverage and put pressure on the government”, the NDS said.

It did not reveal details on how Adel planned the other attack.

Earlier on Saturday, Vice President Amrullah Saleh had also said Adel masterminded the university attack.

He said Adel was recruited by the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Taliban.

“The attack was carried out to pressure, defame and make the government look weak in front of the people,” Saleh said.

Saleh said that Adel –  who had studied the Islamic sharia law and hailed from the province of Panjshir – had revealed that he received weapons from the Haqqani network to carry out the attack.

The shadowy group has long been accused of carrying out brutal assaults on Western forces and civilians, and has been branded a terrorist group by Washington.

Soon after the university attack, Saleh and other top officials had blamed the Taliban.

However, both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group.

– AFP

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