Fact-checking Trump’s false claims about Afghanistan on Fox

Posted at 4:13 PM, Jul 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-22 18:13:00-04

President Donald Trump made a number of claims about the war in Afghanistan in a Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson that aired on Monday night.

Four of them were at least partly inaccurate. Let’s go through them one by one.

Mineral extraction

One of Trump’s claims was about Chinese mineral extraction in Afghanistan.

“You look at China. They don’t police. They don’t have troops everywhere,” Trump told Carlson. “What they have is, they have people taking out the minerals out of the ground. They don’t have troops … But we have troops, and on the other mountain ridge, China is there with big excavating equipment, taking out minerals. They don’t have people. Now, it’s pretty dangerous for them, because their people tend to be shot as they’re operating the machines. You know, it’s not exactly the safest place.”

Facts First: China has invested in a potential copper mining site in Afghanistan, and there has been some violence there. But China has not actually extracted minerals on the site, and US troops have not been stationed on nearby mountain ridges, experts say.

State-owned Chinese companies agreed in 2007 to pay $3 billion to lease land at Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist city southeast of Kabul, for potential copper mining. Chinese workers have indeed been stationed on the site in years past. But the project quickly stalled amid international opposition and various domestic complications, and the Chinese companies have not come close to beginning extraction.

The Afghan government said in April that it is possible the agreement will be terminated.

Trump was correct that there have been safety issues at Mes Aynak. An Afghan archaeologist working at Mes Aynak was killed in a roadside bomb near the site last year, Reuters reported. In 2008, the Afghan news agency Pajhwok reported that three security guards for the site were killed in a bomb attack claimed by the Taliban. Reuters and others have also reported rocket attacks.

But Stephen Carter, Afghanistan campaign lead for Global Witness, a non-governmental organization that monitors the situation at Mes Aynak, said he is not aware of any US troops stationed in close proximity to the site. Brent Huffman, a Northwestern University journalism associate professor and filmmaker who directed the documentary Saving Mes Aynak, says: “There are no US troops based there, only Afghan police.”


The President also claimed that the US had wasted money on a hotel in Afghanistan.

“With Afghanistan, it’s 19 years, and we should not have been there 19 years,” Trump said. “And if we were, you know, it would be nice to fight to win. But it’s just 19 years. They’re building hotels — we are. I mean, we had a Holiday Inn that cost numbers that would be 10 times what it should have cost.”

Facts First: Trump was wrong on the number of years the US has been in Afghanistan and on the hotel company involved in this failed development project. He was correct about his main point: the hotel was very expensive.

The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 — less than 18 years ago, though Trump regularly says “19 years.” And Marriott, not Holiday Inn, was the hotel company originally associated with the project. (Marriott eventually withdrew.)

Trump was accurate with the rest of the claim.

The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a US government agency that provides assistance to companies making investments aligned with American foreign policy goals in developing countries, made $85 million in loans to businesses that had proposed to build a “five-star” hotel and a luxury apartment building across from the US embassy in Kabul, according to a 2016 report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The hotel and residences were never completed. Worse still, according to the special inspector general, the government had to spend an unknown amount of money to secure the “empty shells” of the buildings, since their presence posed a security threat to the embassy.

It remains unclear how the loan money was spent. The special inspector general said the US investment corporation’s oversight practices were lacking.

Natural gas station

After talking about hotels and Chinese mineral operations in Afghanistan, Trump claimed that a gas station had also been built by the US and cost around $80 million.

“They built a gas station, a pretty famous deal where it costs like $80 million to build a gas station,” Trump said.

Facts First: Trump was way off. There were initial reports of a natural gas station costing $43 million to build in Afghanistan, but these reports were based off incorrect estimates, none of which ever approached $80 million. The actual cost of the station was around $5 million.

In late 2015, multiple news reports came out saying that the Defense Department spent around $43 million on a compressed natural gas (CNG) station in Afghanistan, citing a report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The number from the special inspector general originally came from a single line in a consulting firm’s report from December 2014, which said that “approximately $12.3M in direct costs and $30.0M in overhead costs” went “to fund the construction and to supervise the initial operations” of the CNG station.

In a letter to the Senate Armed Services in January 2016 — obtained by the Washington Post — the consulting company recalculated the costs associated with the project and put “the total CNG station costs at well under $10M.” The reduction, according to the letter, was in part caused by an initial overestimation in the overhead costs.

Many of the initial news stories citing the false $43 million remain online.

The actual number to build the initial CNG station was $2.9 million according to documents from the Pentagon for the 2011 budget. (A year later, $2.1 million was spent on adding a garage and building.)

Trump’s $80 million number seems to multiply the $43 million figure that was itself shown to be completely incorrect.

Removing troops

When asked by Carlson how much longer US troops will stay in Afghanistan, Trump claimed that several thousand had already been removed.

“I’ve wanted to pull them out. And you know, I have pulled a lot out. We were at 16,000. We’re down to about 9,000, which a lot of people don’t know.”

Facts First: This is inaccurate, but it’s complicated.

In what was seen at the time as a controversial decision, the Trump administration was reportedly working in December to start the withdrawal process of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan in the following months. This plan, however, has yet to be implemented. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that while the US is ready to remove troops from Afghanistan, a deal with the Taliban would have to be struck first.

In 2017, the Trump administration began deploying several thousand additional military advisers to Afghanistan as part of its South Asia policy. So any reduction in troop numbers would start from the new high created by the administration.

From the time General Scott Miller took command in Afghanistan in September 2018, an undisclosed small number of troops have been removed from the country, according to defense officials.

Currently there are around 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. Trump’s claim of “9,000” troops may refer to the 8,500 US troops that are part of the NATO-led training mission in Afghanistan which comprises the bulk of missions in the country. But the US has additional troops in Afghanistan as part of a bilateral counter-terrorism mission focused on al Qaeda and ISIS which make up the rest of the 14,000 figure.

One significant problem when reviewing troop numbers is that the accounting methods can vary between administrations and alter the total troop number, even if no troops were removed or added. For instance, when the Trump administration first came to power the official tally of troops in Afghanistan increased, despite the fact that no additional troops had been sent to the country. The administration simply adjusted the accounting mechanism.

Trump’s assertion that he has removed thousands of troops from Afghanistan ignores the thousands his administration added in 2017 and exaggerates current reductions under Miller.