Trump administration continues to send mixed messages about future of US troops in Afghanistan

In this June 6, 2019, file photo, US soldiers look out over a hillside at the Afghan National Army checkpoint in Nerkh district of Wardak province, Afghanistan. By Jennifer Hansler and Ryan Browne, CNN

(CNN) -- The Trump administration continued to send contradictory messages about the future of US troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday.

The US ambassador to NATO said conditions had not yet been met for a further reduction of forces in the country, while President Donald Trump's national security adviser once again suggested that the administration was moving forward with a plan to drastically draw down troops by next spring.

The comments on potential troop withdrawals come as US and international officials have decried high levels of violence by the Taliban against Afghan forces.

"Going forward, we will be looking at conditions on the ground to determine if there is a capability to draw down more troops, which we all would hope that conditions would allow us to do that. But certainly the conditions have not been met at this time," Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison told reporters during a virtual briefing.

She noted concerns about ongoing Taliban violence "in violation of the spirit of the agreement they made with the US, if not the letter of that agreement." The US and the militant organization signed a pact in February that called for an eventual withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban met certain conditions.

"We are calling for a ceasefire, or a significant reduction in violence, which we have not seen," Hutchison said. "And we call on the Taliban to reduce that violence, so that the conditions can be met, which is what all of us would like, so that Afghans can decide for themselves how they can live together in peace and be at peace with their neighbors and assure that no terrorist groups would be able to grow in their country and be a cancer on their country and be exported to NATO allies. That's our goal. And we are going to support the Afghan process to achieve that goal."

Trump has said he'll bring troops home

Trump has made bringing American troops home a theme of his reelection campaign but the future of US forces in Afghanistan is uncertain amid the mixed messages coming from the administration. Pentagon and State Department officials have repeatedly stressed that a reduction of troops from the country would be "conditions-based."

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also stressed Wednesday that future reductions of the 12,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan would be conditions-based.

"We have made it very clear that our presence in Afghanistan and any future adjustment in our force levels in Afghanistan is conditions-based," Stoltenberg said at a news conference prior to a virtual meeting of NATO defense ministers.

"We have to assess the conditions, including the Taliban has to break ties with terrorist organizations, because the reason why we went into Afghanistan was to fight terrorism, international terrorism, after the 9/11 attack on the United States. And of course, the reduction of violence, that can pave the way for a lasting ceasefire," Stoltenberg said, adding, "When the time is right, when the conditions are met, then we will leave together. But not before."

The Taliban and Afghan government officials launched talks in Doha, Qatar, last month, but the former have continued offensive operations on the ground even after the start of those negotiations.

US national security adviser Robert O'Brien appeared to link additional troop cuts to conditions on the ground for the first time in an interview with Politico published Wednesday but also stated that "we have a plan that's been in place for some time going to 4,500 by this month, and being somewhere around 2,500 to 2,800 in early 2021" and that the Pentagon was "executing" this plan.

O'Brien had previously announced the nearly 50% troop cut but had made no mention of it being conditions-based, so his reference to conditions appeared to be a slight change in his stated position, a change that came after his initial timeline for withdrawals sparked pushback from the Pentagon and caused an open rift in the most senior levels of the administration.

In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday, the top US commander in Afghanistan declined to comment on the viability of the spring timeline.

"Those are political decisions. We make military recommendations," said Gen. Austin Scott Miller, the commander of US Forces Afghanistan and NATO's Resolute Support Mission.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley had pushed back on an earlier announcement from O'Brien suggesting an aggressive timeline for troop withdrawals that appeared to be irrespective of conditions.

"Robert O'Brien, or anyone else, can speculate as they see fit, I am not going to engage in speculation, I'm going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I'm aware of in my conversations with the President," Milley told NPR on October 11.

In his interview with Politico, O'Brien said, "I really can't comment on what General Milley was saying. I wasn't in the interview, I didn't read the whole thing."

However, O'Brien had pushed back on Milley's comments Friday despite not referencing the general directly by name.

"All I can tell you is what I understand the plan is, and I understand the Pentagon is executing the plan. I talked to Secretary Esper and I think we are all on the same page," O'Brien told Politico, referring to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

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