On troop withdrawals, Team Trump can't keep its story straight

After Trump tweeted about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, a senior U.S. military official was silent for a moment before saying, "Oh my God!"
Fly-to-Advise: Marines with Task Force Southwest visit the Provincial Headquarters
U.S. Marine advisors embark on a CH-47 Chinook after a train, advise and assist mission in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, on July 9, 2017.Sgt. Justin Updegraff / U.S. Marine Corps file

Donald Trump is under the impression that withdrawing U.S. troops from foreign interventions is popular, so the president periodically tells the public that he's succeeded in bringing Americans in uniform home.

The trouble, of course, is that reality keeps getting in the way. As the Washington Post recently noted, "While there have been some relatively minor shifts in distribution ... the overall total of [U.S. troops] serving abroad is believed to have slightly increased since Barack Obama left office."

But as Election Day nears, and Trump looks desperately for something that might prevent his defeat, the president last night suggested the United States would soon withdraw completely from the war in Afghanistan. "We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!" Trump tweeted.

That probably came as a surprise to White House National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, who spoke at an event in Las Vegas yesterday about the administration's drawdown timeline. "When President Trump took office, there were over 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan," O'Brien said. "As of today, there are under 5,000, and that will go to 2,500 by early next year."

Well, which is it? Will the deployment totals drop to 2,500 by early next year, or will they drop to zero by Christmas of this year?

The New York Times sought an answer from the administration.

Asked about the tweet, a senior U.S. military official was silent for a moment before saying, "Oh my God!" The official said he was not aware of such a decision.

I have a hunch that "Oh my God!" is not an uncommon reaction to presidential Twitter pronouncements that are at odds with his own administration's agenda. The president has been blindsiding his own team for nearly four years.

To be sure, it's possible that Trump will simply order military officials to follow his tweet and withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the next couple of months. It's more likely, however, that the president was just peddling nonsense that he thought voters might like, without regard for reality.

And when Christmas 2020 arrives, and reporters ask why "our brave men and women serving in Afghanistan" haven't returned home, Trump will probably say something along the lines of, "I'll answer that in two weeks."

Update: For what it's worth, the Taliban announced overnight that it's pleased with the American president's new timetable.