US is quietly reducing its troop force in Afghanistan

Defense Secretary Mark Esper (center) was greeted by US military personnel upon arriving in Kabul Sunday.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper (center) was greeted by US military personnel upon arriving in Kabul Sunday.Lolita C. Balbor/Associated Press/Associated Press

KABUL — The United States is already reducing the size of its troop force in Afghanistan despite the lack of a peace deal with the Taliban, at a time when President Trump has expressed reluctance to remain engaged in costly wars abroad.

In a news conference Monday, the top US commander in Afghanistan, General Austin S. Miller, confirmed that the size of the US force in the country had already quietly dropped by 2,000 over the last year, down to between roughly 12,000 and 13,000.

Other American and Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the plan, said that the eventual force size could drop to as low as 8,600 — roughly the size of an initial reduction envisioned in a draft agreement with the Taliban before Trump halted peace talks last month. Rather than a formal withdrawal order, they are reducing the force through a gradual process of not replacing troops as they cycle out.

A senior Afghan official said the Afghan government had signed off on the reduction. Officials would not discuss other details of the drawdown, including any specific timeline for it.


The confirmation came during a visit to Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, and after months of debate within the Trump administration on meeting the president’s goal of stopping what he has recently called “endless wars.”

Earlier in his visit, Esper seemed to allude to some potential reduction in US forces, saying that drawing down to 8,600 troops would not affect important counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

As Trump grew frustrated over the past year, diplomats tried to package a US troop reduction as a bargaining chip in peace talks with the Taliban, hoping to get some concessions from the insurgent group, which has long demanded a complete US troop withdrawal.


The decision to reduce US troops even before a deal with the Taliban means the United States is weakening its hand in future negotiations with the insurgents. And it is likely to mean a significant shift away from the US military’s longstanding mission of training the Afghan military as US officials concentrate on counterterrorism operations, officials said.

Reducing the number of troops ahead of a complete departure from the country was always the most important US bargaining chip in any negotiations with the Taliban to end the long war. But from the start, Trump made it abundantly clear that he wanted out of Afghanistan.

At one stage halfway through the yearlong negotiations, Trump stumbled during a Fox interview, incorrectly saying that the number of US troops in Afghanistan was 9,000 and not the roughly 14,000 it was listed at. Many, including some Taliban officials taking part in the talks in Qatar, read that as confirmation that the US decision to draw down had already been made whether the Taliban offered concessions or not.

Much of the initial effort by US negotiators was trying to persuade the Taliban that the United States was truly committed to Afghanistan, while signaling that the insurgents should not try to wait out the Americans.

US military officials, though wary of leaving Afghanistan altogether, had signed off on the first stages of a troop drawdown in a draft peace agreement that would have seen 5,400 US troops leave the country over about five months. The measure was put forward to show the Taliban that the Americans would abide by the proposed deal in return for the insurgent group reducing violence in Afghanistan, according to officials taking part in the negotiations.


But the peace talks collapsed last month when Trump pulled the plug on the deal his diplomats had finalized and initialed after a year of negotiations.

US officials have since quietly signaled that they are trying to keep the talks with the Taliban alive. Earlier this month, the chief negotiator for the United States, Zalmay Khalilzad, met informally with Taliban officials in Pakistan.

During his visit, Esper also said a peace agreement was “the best way forward.”

At the height of the war, in 2010 and 2011, there were more than 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, aided by tens of thousands of NATO allies in what made up one of the biggest military coalitions in the world.

Now, a further reduction in US forces would mean that the burden of training the Afghan military would fall more heavily on the roughly 8,500 NATO forces and other allies in the country.

It is unclear, however, whether a reduction in US forces might lead to some reconsideration by NATO allies as well. In a recent interview with The New York Times, NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, would not speculate on any reduction of troops, but added that NATO remains committed to the mission in Afghanistan.

“We have adjusted that many times, and we will always assess exactly the way and the composition of our forces in Afghanistan,” Stoltenberg said.