National security adviser O'Brien responds to question about when U.S. troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan

Speaking virtually at the Aspen Security Forum, national security adviser Robert O’Brien responded to a reporter’s question about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and when soldiers might be withdrawn.

Video Transcript

- Want to just go back to what you felt at the beginning and also something in response to Stephen Hadley about Afghanistan. The Chairman of Joint Chiefs, General Milley, said that you were speculating when you announced it would be only 2,500 American troops left in Afghanistan at the end of the year, implying that it would remain conditions-based and could be as high as 4,500, which is where it is now, I believe. And then the president said it would be 0 by Christmas.

So there's three different answers there in the context of very fraught negotiations, as you mentioned between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and, indeed, a Taliban resurgence in Helmand and elsewhere. So my question is since everyone else is speculating now about which the correct answer is-- and the correct answer is quite important piece of information-- which would-- should be believed? And why is there such confusion?

ROBERT O'BRIEN: Well, listen, the first thing I'd say is when I speak and talk about troop levels and that sort of thing-- like, I'm a staffer. I staff with the president of the United States. So I-- it's not my practice to speculate. So other people can interpret what I say as speculation or not, but I wasn't speculating then. I wasn't speculating today.

And so that's-- when I'm speaking, I'm speaking for the president. And I think that's what the Pentagon is moving out and doing. So that's number one.

Number two, the president put out a tweet shortly after I spoke it. I think it was UNLV law school is where I made those comments. And the president put out a tweet and said, we'd like to have people home by Christmas.

And I think what the president was doing is he was expressing the same desire that I think every president since the Revolutionary War has said. Whenever we're at war, whether it was the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or World War I or World War II, all presidents, all GIs want the troops home by Christmas. I knew that, yeah. There are a plethora of letters and thousands of letters going back.

The troops always want to be home by Christmas. We want the troops home by Christmas. The president wants them home by Christmas. And what I've said on this, and I think the president says, well, if we'd like the troops out as soon as possible, we need to get out of Afghanistan. We need to stop spending the kind of money that we're spending in Afghanistan. We need the Afghan people to come together after 19 years.

We've done a great job of degrading al-Qaeda, which was the first rea-- or the reason we went to Afghanistan to begin with. We want to make sure that Afghanistan is not a place where terrorists can plot against the United States and have a safe haven where they can launch attacks against us. So we want to make sure that's the case. But ultimately, Afghanistan has to be run by the Afghans, and the Afghan people have to come together and come up with a solution for Afghanistan.

We want to support it. We've been supporting it for 19 years. We continue to support it. We continue to have troops there and-- but ultimately, if these inter-Afghan negotiations could work out well, there'd be nothing greater than to have our troops out by Christmas. But right now, we're on a path with our European allies.

So we went into Afghanistan together. We're gonna come out together. We're on a path right now that looks like about 4,500 this fall and a smaller number in the-- in January and February.

But if the conditions permit it, look, we'd love to get people out earlier. And I think that's the desire that the president was expressing. But the Afghan people know that we're with them, and we've been very supportive of the government, the negotiations-- and with our allies we're gonna continue to support the people of Afghanistan as they seek an accord that brings us this 19-year war to an end.