The United States has been reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan over the past year, the top American commander in Afghanistan said Monday, despite peace talks with the Taliban being declared “dead” by President Donald Trump in September.
Gen. Austin S. Miller, speaking at a press conference in Afghanistan, said 2,000 U.S. troops have been withdrawn, leaving roughly 12,000. This reduction had not been previously made public “as part of our optimization,” he said.
“What it’s based on is: understand the risks to the force, risks to the mission, and look at it in terms of capabilities,” he said.
“I’m confident that we have the right capabilities to ... reach our objectives, as well as continue Train Advise Assist Command throughout the country,” he said, naming the NATO mission that works with the Afghan military to prevent terrorist safe havens.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who also attended the press conference during his first visit to Afghanistan since taking office, said troop withdrawal would help the Pentagon better focus on its national defense in relation to China and Russia. Objectives in Afghanistan would still be met, he added, but with the minimum number of troops needed.
“Not any more or not any less than we need otherwise,” he said.
Esper had earlier told reporters traveling with him that the U.S. could reduce the number of American troops to roughly 8,600 without weakening its operations against militant groups. That reduction, he said, would happen as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban.
One of Trump’s campaign promises had been withdrawing troops in Afghanistan, though peace talks with the Taliban were called off following failed efforts to reduce violence in the Middle East. Esper said his aim is to get those talks started again.
Late last year, it was reported that Trump ordered about half of U.S. troops ― or more than 7,000 ― to pull out of Afghanistan and more than 2,000 to leave Syria.
That Syria withdrawal drew backlash, however, prompting him to reverse his decision until earlier this month.