The top American commander in Afghanistan revealed on October 21 that the number of U.S. troops in the country has quietly been reduced by 2,000 over the past year, insisting remaining military personnel are still capable of reaching their stated objectives.
The revelation by General Austin Scott Miller means the number of residual U.S. forces now stands at roughly 12,000 soldiers. They are tasked with fighting terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, as well as training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces battling Taliban insurgents.
“Unbeknownst to the public as part of our optimization, over the last year… we have reduced our authorized strength by 2,000 here,” Miller told a joint news conference with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Kabul.
“So, there is a constant look as a military commander to optimize the force here, and what it’s based on is you understand the risks to the force, risks to the mission, and look at it in terms of capabilities,” Miller said. He was responding to comments Esper made a day earlier that even if the troop size is eventually reduced to 8,600, it will not undermine the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
The U.S. defense secretary arrived in the Afghan capital on an unannounced visit on October 20 and held talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and met with U.S. service members.
That day, Esper dismissed concerns that Washington could be preparing to stage an abrupt pullout from Afghanistan, as many see the U.S. military doing in northeastern Syria.
“We have a longstanding commitment to our Afghan partners. We have invested billions upon billions of dollars. Both the Afghan people and the American people have sacrificed treasure and the lives of their soldiers,” Esper noted.
A “virulent terrorist" threat is still facing the country, he said.
“So, all these things, I think, should reassure our Afghan allies and others that they should not misinterpret our actions in the recent week or so with regard to Syria and contrast that with Afghanistan,” Esper stressed.
During his visit, the U.S. defense secretary also emphasized that a political agreement was “always the best way forward” with regard to next steps in Afghanistan.
His comments came days after U.S. chief peace negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad informally met with Afghan Taliban leaders in Pakistan, raising hopes the stalled dialogue might eventually resume to bring an end to the 18-year Afghan war.
U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly broke off the yearlong dialogue last month, just when the two adversaries had come close to signing a peace deal. He cited an uptick in Taliban attacks and the death of an American solider in a car bombing in Kabul that also killed 11 Afghan civilians.
Just before the collapse of the dialogue with the insurgent group, Khalilzad had said the United States was supposed to withdraw more than 5,000 troops from Afghanistan within the first five months of the signing of the draft deal he negotiated with the Taliban.
That would have reduced the size of the U.S. troop force to roughly around 8,600.
The Taliban have repeatedly called for American interlocutors to return to the negotiating table to conclude the agreement, insisting the document is just awaiting signatures from the two sides.
Also on October 20, a group of senior American lawmakers led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a secret trip to the country.
Pelosi’s office said in a statement on October 20 that her bipartisan delegation met with President Ghani, the country’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah and civil society leaders, as well as U.S. military commanders. The delegation was able to briefly compare notes with Esper and was briefed by U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan on reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
In recent days, Trump has repeatedly underscored the need for ending what he often refers to as America’s “endless” foreign wars. He has made those comments particularly with reference to the Afghan conflict, which entered its 19th year this month.
Some analysts, like Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., are skeptical of whether U.S. assurances will help ease Afghan concerns.
“Trump’s growing impatience with the war in Afghanistan is a major concern among Afghans, and the U.S. defense secretary’s boilerplate comments about seeking an eventual settlement won’t do much to ease those concerns. There’s well-founded anxiety in Afghanistan that Trump may eventually withdraw before a peace deal is struck,” Kugelman noted.
He says it is no secret that Trump wants to bring U.S. troops home and he has been “unwavering” in his sentiment.
“When he articulates this desire publicly, he not only underscores one of his few consistent positions -- and one supported by many Americans -- but he also reinforces the leverage enjoyed by the Taliban. President Trump is in a hurry to leave Afghanistan, and the insurgents have the luxury of waiting him out until the day that U.S. soldiers head for the exits,” Kugelman cautioned.