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O'Brien confirms Trump ordered Pentagon to cut U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early 2021

NBC News reported Wednesday that the Trump administration planned to chop the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, below previously announced levels.
President Donald Trump speaks to the troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field, on Nov. 28, 2019 in Afghanistan.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images file

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien confirmed on Friday that President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 2,500 in early 2021, as NBC News was first to report on Wednesday.

Speaking via Zoom at the Aspen Institute Friday morning, O’Brien said the president has set a timeline for troop withdrawal and in the early part of next year the U.S. will be down to 2,500. O’Brien said there have been comments that a decrease to 2,500 is “speculation” but insisted it is more than speculation, a clear reference to comments made by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, earlier this month.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they fit,” Milley told NPR in an Oct. 11 interview. “I’m 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 am aware of and my conversations with the president.”

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley speaks before the presentation of the Space Force flag in the Oval Office of the White House on May 15, 2020.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

O’Brien told the Aspen Institute Friday he could “guarantee” that the planned drawdown to 2,500 troops is “the order of the commander in chief.” He added that Defense Secretary Mark Esper is aware and fully on board with implementing the plan.

“When I speak about troop levels and that sort of thing, I’m a staffer, I staff the president of the United States, so it’s not my practice to speculate.”

“Other people can interpret what I say as speculation or not but I wasn’t speculating then and I wasn’t speculating today,” he said. “When I’m speaking I’m speaking for the president and I think that’s what the Pentagon is moving out and doing.”

National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Aug. 13, 2020.
National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Aug. 13, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

Asked about Trump’s recent tweet that all troops will be home from Afghanistan by Christmas, he said all presidents and all troops want to be home by Christmas. “There’d be nothing greater than to have our troops home by Christmas,” he said.

“If the conditions permit it, we’d love to get people out earlier and I think that’s the desire the president was expressing.”