Trump ‘wants’ all US troops out of Afghanistan over coronavirus
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The president asks about removing troops from the war-torn nation almost daily, saying they are at risk to the pandemic, two current and one former US official told the news network. The officials said his recent interest also arose out of his impatience with the slow-moving peace agreement with the Taliban.
"There is concern from a variety of places that we could leave Afghanistan," one senior US official told NBC News, mentioning worries from US allies, members of Congress and military officials.
A senior administration official and a defense official said the subject has been discussed, but it’s more likely American forces would end up consolidated at bases in one or two areas of the country, which lacks the robust health care infrastructure needed to best contain diseases such as COVID-19.
US defense officials expect Afghanistan’s coronavirus data to be underreported, saying the actual numbers may be at least 10 times higher than official counts. The Afghan Ministry of Public Health has recorded 1,703 confirmed cases of the virus and 57 deaths.
US officials have expressed concern about a potential major outbreak of the virus in Afghanistan, with its lack of health care systems and testing and its shared border with Iran, which has been hit hard by the virus.
"Afghanistan is going to have a significant coronavirus issue," a former senior US official told NBC News. "It hasn't really manifested yet but it will."
The US had already begun reducing the number of troops in the country to 8,600, although two defense officials say forces are leaving faster than the original schedule.
"US Forces Afghanistan continues to draw down force levels and expects to be at 8,600 US troops in 135 days [mid-July] in accordance with the US-Taliban agreement. USFOR-A remains committed to supporting our Afghan partners throughout the process and maintains the capabilities and authorities necessary to accomplish our objectives," Lt-Col Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesperson, told NBC News.
Last month, Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Afghanistan to tell the country’s leaders they needed to start negotiating directly with the Taliban or all US troops would be removed from the nation, two current senior officials, one former senior official and a foreign diplomat told NBC News.