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US has been reducing troop strength in Afghanistan, commander says

By SUSANNAH GEORGE | The Washington Post | Published: October 21, 2019

KABUL — The United States has reduced its troop strength in Afghanistan over the past year, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan announced Monday, despite the abrupt end last month of peace talks with the Taliban that centered on a draw-down of American troops.

"Unbeknownst to the public as part of our optimization . . . we reduced our authorized strength by 2,000 here," Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller said at a news conference in Kabul, alongside Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is visiting Afghanistan for the first time since he took office.

There are around 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul, Army Col. Sonny Leggett. When Miller took command in Afghanistan last year, troop levels were at 15,000.

Much of the reduction came from U.S. command headquarters in Kabul, Leggett said.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly pledged to bring U.S. troops home from "endless wars" abroad. In a draft of a peace deal reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators, the Trump administration said it was prepared to reduce the number of American troops to 8,600.

Leggett said the reduction was "an aggregate drop since General Miller took command" and not part of the drawdown to 8,600 American troops.

Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib said the smaller number of U.S. forces will not have a negative impact on the Afghan military's capabilities.

"The role of foreign troops in merely confined to mentoring," said Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry.

Afghanistan's security forces remain heavily reliant on American support and assistance to both hold territory and conduct offensive operations, according to a Pentagon study released in June. As the Pentagon has drawn down from nearly 100,000 troops in the country in 2011, Afghanistan has seen the Taliban steadily expand its control and influence.

The Taliban has welcomed Trump's commitment to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Shortly after a Trump rally in Minneapolis earlier this month, Suhail Shaheen, spokesman for the Taliban's political office in Doha, noted the applause after Trump mentioned bringing home troops.

"We consider the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan to be a solution to Afghanistan's problem and it is also in the interest of the American and Afghan people," he tweeted.

Esper praised the reduction at the news conference in Kabul.

"General Miller is doing exactly what I asked all our commanders to do when I entered office," Esper said. "I'm asking them to look where they can free up time, money and manpower," so the Pentagon can focus on countering China and Russia in line with the country's national defense strategy.

Esper added that countering terrorism and extremism "is also part of that priority list." In addition to supporting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban, U.S. troops in Afghanistan carry out operations against terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

The Afghan government was informed of the drawdown, but the move was made unilaterally, Leggett said. "This isn't something that was done in negotiation with (the Afghan government)," he said.

The reduction has the potential to complicate peace talks with the Taliban. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and assistance to the country are the main sources of leverage for American negotiators.

Peace talks between the United States and the Taliban have not formally restarted, but the travel schedule of the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, suggests efforts are underway to revive negotiations. His office announced that he would travel to Belgium, France and Russia on Monday "to review how best to support accelerated efforts to reach peace in Afghanistan." And earlier this month Khalilzad met with Taliban leaders in Pakistan.

Nearly 2,400 American troops have died in the Afghanistan since the United States intervened in 2001, and more than 20,000 have been wounded, according to the Pentagon.

The Washington Post's Sayed Salahuddin and Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.
 

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