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Trump calls Afghanistan “the Harvard of terrorists,” says he’ll leave intel assets there

The war in Afghanistan may not end under Trump’s watch.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks on America’s military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017.
President Donald Trump delivers remarks on America’s military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump wants to get out of Afghanistan. But he says he’s worried that the country has become the “Harvard of terrorists” — so even if the US does end up leaving, he says he plans to keep a US intelligence presence behind to monitor the situation.

That’s the biggest takeaway from Trump’s interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, which aired Monday night.

Prompted by the death of two US soldiers in Afghanistan last week, Carlson asked the president if he had plans to remove all service members from the country nearly 20 years after America first went in to defeat al-Qaeda. Trump rattled off some usual talking points, like how he believes the US shouldn’t be the world’s policeman and that America has spent too much money building things like hotels and gas stations in Afghanistan.

But Trump, who remains skeptical of US intervention abroad, surprisingly said that the terrorism situation in Afghanistan is why he wouldn’t fully withdraw. “I would like to just get out. The problem is it just seems to be a lab for terrorists,” the president told Carlson. “I call it ‘the Harvard of terrorists.’”

So what’s his proposal instead? “I would leave very strong intelligence there,” he said. “You have to watch.”

It’s unclear exactly what Trump means. He didn’t specify if “strong intelligence” requires a bolstered CIA presence in Afghanistan, for example, or if he aims to devote more resources to tracking terrorists’ digital communications. He also failed to mention if any troops should be left behind to protect US intelligence assets in the area.

Still, saying that the situation in Afghanistan is so tough that he can’t fully bring troops home is a shocking admission for a president voted into office partly for promising to end US wars.

Don’t expect a full Afghanistan withdrawal under Trump

There’s no question that Afghanistan remains a violent place. On Monday, the Taliban launched an attack in Kabul, the capital, that reportedly killed about 40 people — including children — and injured at least 100 more. That kind of bloodshed is the major reason the US is currently negotiating with the Islamist insurgent group to find a solution that allows the US to leave.

Trump saying he wouldn’t completely take all US personnel out of Afghanistan may hurt those talks, as the Taliban wants America out entirely, experts say.

His statement, then, seems like both a potential complication in the US-Taliban negotiations and a reversal of his position on Afghanistan.

The president fought his own administration for months when advisers told him he should send more troops to Afghanistan, mainly because he felt the US had fought too long there. He eventually relented in September 2017 and agreed to send 3,000 additional service members to the country, fewer than many of his aides wanted.

But Trump noted in the interview that military advisers have influenced his thinking. He told Carlson that he spoke with generals about whether the US could soon leave Afghanistan. And while they replied, “Yes, sir,” in Trump’s telling, he said they also expressed their desire to “attack them over there [rather] than attack them in our land.”

That’s surprising, as Trump has previously claimed that he knows a lot more than the generals do about war. He also reportedly complained to top brass during a tense 2017 meeting that the US was “losing” in Afghanistan despite him having given the military more authority to launch offensive operations in the country several months before.

But now, it seems, US military leaders are on the president’s good side.

Trump has never been shy about announcing US troop withdrawals. He surprised everyone last December when he ordered all of America’s few thousand fighters still in Syria to come home, despite apparently not having coordinated that decision with the rest of his administration. He soon reversed that decision and allowed roughly 400 troops to remain in the country.

Still, Trump made sure to tell Carlson that he has reduced the number of US service members in Afghanistan to about 9,000 total now.

The Pentagon didn’t immediately respond to a query asking if that number was correct. But based on Trump’s interview, it seems the total won’t drop to zero anytime soon.

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