As peace talks with the Taliban resume, the administration will announce sometime next week that the U.S. will withdraw 4000 troops from Afghanistan.
The drawdown had been long anticipated as Trump mentioned several months ago he wanted to bring some of the troops home. The president told aides earlier this year that he wanted all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the 2020 election.
The announcement would come just days after Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad rejoined diplomatic talks with the Taliban, which had broken down in September. On Thursday, Ambassador Khalilzad said the U.S. was “taking a brief pause” in talks after a Wednesday attack near Bagram Airfield killed two Afghan civilians and wounded 70 more.
The U.S. has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan now. The officials would not say when the drawdown would begin, but did characterize it as a phased withdrawal that would occur over a few months. Two U.S. officials said the drawdown would be a combination of troops re-deploying early and others not being replaced when they rotate out.
The remaining troops — between 8-9000 — would concentrate on counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan. Training Afghan police and the army would be negatively affected, according to the Pentagon.
It should be noted that the reduction in forces will not depend on progress in the peace talks with the Taliban:
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told an audience at the Reagan National Defense Forum last weekend that the reduction of U.S. troops will happen even if the Taliban does not negotiate an agreement, and that the commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, has said he can sustain a reduction in forces.
“The commander feels confident we can go down to a lower level without jeopardizing our ability to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorism,” Esper said, adding that he hopes to reallocate forces from CENTCOM to the Asia Pacific region, which he called his “priority theater.”
What motivation will there be for the Taliban to come to an agreement when they know we’re leaving anyway? It’s a convoluted strategy that will end up with the Taliban declaring victory when the last troops pull out next year.
Clearly, the war is winding down and grinding toward a conclusion — at least for the U.S. For Afghanistan, the agony will continue as the area controlled by the government in Kabul will continue to shrink. Eventually, some sort of face-saving “coalition” government will be formed with the Taliban firmly in control.
But as long as Afghanistan won’t become a base for international terrorism, the U.S. can point to that consolation prize as the primary achievement of the war.