Caption

Georgia troops heading to Afghanistan as Trump orders drawdown

The Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade is proceeding for now with its January deployment to Afghanistan even as President Donald Trump plans to bring home about half of all U.S. troops from that country.

But it is unknown if the president’s surprise move will change the duration of the brigade’s nine-month mission or its focus: Training Afghan soldiers, assisting U.S. Special Forces troops and securing Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.

That uncertainty left the Georgia troops and their families hungry for information here Friday at a crowded departure ceremony for the brigade.

Among them was Courtney Moser, a cosmetics saleswoman from Waco in West Georgia, whose husband, Josh, is deploying with the brigade and leaving her to care for their one-year-old son. She wonders if he will be sent to a different part of Afghanistan and if he will return sooner.

“If different groups are pulling out, why are they going in?” she said, adding the news “kind of shocked me.”

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More: Georgia guardsmen to face crowded, complex battlefield in Afghanistan

Col. Matthew Smith, the brigade’s commander, is urging his soldiers to remain flexible.

“It doesn’t change anything — as far as we know — so far,” Smith said, adding that troop “levels have ebbed and flowed over the years. We will see what happens.”

48th Brigade troops salute at their departure ceremony at Fort Stewart. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Amid heavy rain here, troops moved the ceremony into a gymnasium. Nearly every seat was taken. Babies babbled during the generals’ speeches. Motionless, the soldiers stood in formation. And then they launched into the “Army Song,” singing: “First to fight for the right, and to build the nation’s might, and the Army goes rolling along.”

About 2,200 of the brigade’s troops are set to deploy just after Christmas to eastern Afghanistan, where they will join the longest war in America’s history, a fight now in its 17th year. Roughly 300 other 48th soldiers are already there. More than 2,400 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since the invasion of that country following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Government officials, diplomats surprised

Trump is preparing to pull up to 7,000 troops out of Afghanistan, or about half of all U.S. forces there. News of his plans surfaced Thursday after he called for the withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria. His decisions have stunned U.S. allies and prompted Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to resign.

Many officials and diplomats were less concerned about the reduction in troop numbers — though struggling Afghan forces still need hands-on help — than by the way news of it emerged, which they said appeared to undermine not only the Afghan government but also some of the most senior U.S. officials working for a peace deal.

Afghan officials said they had not been consulted or even warned about the drawdown. And the timing was likely to complicate the American push for peace talks with the Taliban, which requires maintaining pressure, or at least holding the line, on the battlefield.

Just this week, senior American diplomats had conducted two days of extensive talks with representatives of the insurgency, with the future of the U.S. military presence among the topics discussed. And hours before the troop pulldown became public knowledge, Zalmay Khalilzad, the most senior American diplomat involved in the talks, said he had made it clear to the Taliban that the U.S. commitment was firm.

Members of the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade pray during a departure ceremony at Fort Stewart. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The decision also comes at a time when the U.S. military already has a trust deficit with its Afghan partners after a spate of recent insider attacks. A feeling of abandonment could further increase the risk to soldiers working closely with Afghan partners.

Under the right circumstances, a U.S. troop reduction could be a boon to peace talks — a demonstration to the Taliban that the United States is willing to do what is necessary to reach a deal.

“It’s clear that a rapid pullout of all international forces could spark the collapse of the Afghan government and start a new civil war,” said Graeme Smith, a consultant with the International Crisis Group and a longtime observer of Afghanistan. “Still, this partial withdrawal could send a useful message to all sides. This signals to the Taliban that the U.S. is serious about negotiating an exit.”

Fort Stewart: Lieutenant colonel Nate Stone hugs his 1-year-old son Conrad during the Georgia National Guard’s 48th Brigade Combat Team Casing of Color and Departure Ceremony for their deployment to Afghanistan on Friday, Dec 21, 2018, at Fort Stewart.

Lots of questions for Georgia’s brigade

The Georgia National Guard is scrambling to learn more about the president’s plans.

“Plans and policies change over time and we have to be flexible and evolve,” said Brig. Gen. Randall Simmons, commander of the Georgia Army National Guard. “This could call for a mission change of some sort. It is probably too early to really speculate. But the brigade is very well trained for what they are going to do right now. And they look forward to getting it started.”

Maj. Gen. Joe Jarrard, Georgia’s adjutant general, offered a similar message.

“I don’t know how it will impact the brigade,” he said. “If there is a drawdown, it could be that they are part of that. But it may be that they rotate in and other forces are part of that drawdown.”

1st Sgt. Archer Ford of Dawsonville, who participated in the send-off ceremony here Friday, had mixed feelings about the news.

Seven-year-old Julianna hugs her father 1st Sgt. Archer Ford after the 48th Brigade’s departure ceremony at Fort Stewart. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“I’m eager to go and do the mission. But at the same time if we were to come home early, I’m sure my family would not be disappointed,” said Ford, who is about to go on his third deployment overseas.

“I haven’t seen a great need to pull out. We help bring peace and stabilization” to Afghanistan, he added. “I just worry what would happen if we completely pull out.”

His wife, Jennifer, who is scheduled to deliver their second child in the coming days, said Mattis’ decision to resign makes her uneasy while her husband is deploying.

“It certainly is concerning,” she said, adding about her husband: “It would be a pleasant surprise if he were to come home earlier.”

Mattis, who was quietly back at work Friday while stunned Pentagon staff soldiered on around him, implicitly warned Thursday in his resignation letter to the president of the threat to the U.S. from allowing alliances to fray and of the risk that disrespecting allies will undermine U.S. credibility.

The person nominated to succeed Mattis - who steps down Feb. 28 - will face a Senate likely to probe for evidence of new strategic direction in hotspots like Syria, Afghanistan and the Korean peninsula.

Moments before the ceremony began, Sgt. 1st Class Neal Andreson, a platoon leader from Braselton, said he wants to keep the news from distracting his troops.

“If it happens, we will adjust. You cannot go into it with the mindset that you will leave early. It breeds complacency,” he said. “As leaders, we need to make sure our guys are staying focused on their mission at hand.”

Gov. Nathan Deal addresses the 48th Brigade at its departure ceremony at Fort Stewart. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Near the end of the ceremony Friday, Gov. Nathan Deal presented Smith, the brigade commander, with a Georgia flag so he could fly it in Afghanistan. Deal sidestepped a question about his opinion of Trump’s plan, calling it a “federal decision.”

“I think all of us would theoretically like to see all of our troops back on American soil. But the purpose of the original mission still persists,” he said. “I am very proud that our Georgia National Guard has such a great reputation from their past service and what they have done to prepare for this deployment. I think they will do a great job.”

The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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