The U.S. military has reduced troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500, bringing force levels down to their lowest number in nearly two decades, the Pentagon said on January 15.
President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of about 1,500 troops in November, drawing a backlash from Congress at a time of continued Taliban attacks on the Afghan government despite exploratory peace talks between the two sides.
“The United States is closer than ever to ending nearly two decades of war and welcoming in an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire,” Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller said in a statement.
Under a U.S.-Taliban deal reached last February, all foreign forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for security guarantees from the militant group, including severing ties with Al-Qaeda.
Afghan government and Taliban negotiators have made halting progress since direct talks began in Qatar in the autumn against the backdrop of violence and calls for a cease-fire.
Despite the troop reduction, the Pentagon said U.S. forces were still capable of counterterrorism operations and training and assisting Afghan security forces.
Military commanders will continue to plan for a possible full exit from Afghanistan by May in line with the deal with the Taliban.
The Pentagon stated “any such future drawdowns remain conditions-based.”
“All sides must demonstrate their commitment to advancing the peace process,” it said.
President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on January 20, will make key decisions on how Washington handles peace talks and any further troop withdrawals.
Under Trump's order, commanders also cut U.S. troop levels in Iraq to 2,500 from about 3,000 in the same period.
In a separate statement, the Pentagon said that goal had been met, reflecting "the increased capabilities of the Iraqi security forces" against the Islamic State militant group.
Miller added that U.S. forces would still conduct counterterrorism operations in Iraq to support partner forces with airpower and intelligence.