World U.S. Is Quietly Reducing Its Troop Force in Afghanistan

15:11  21 october  2019
15:11  21 october  2019 Source:   msn.com

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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 on Monday, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, confirmed that the size of the American force in the country had already quietly dropped by 2,000 over the last year, down to roughly 12,000.

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Other American and Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the eventual force size could drop to as low as 8,600 — not through any formal withdrawal order, but rather through a gradual process of not replacing troops as they cycle out.

That is roughly the size of an initial reduction envisioned in a draft agreement with the Taliban before Mr. Trump halted peace talks last month.

a group of people standing around a plane: American military personnel at Camp Shorabak in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, last month. © Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times American military personnel at Camp Shorabak in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, last month. 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.

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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.”

a man in a military uniform standing in front of a plane: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper arriving in Kabul on Sunday. © Idrees Ali/Reuters U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper arriving in Kabul on Sunday.

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

As Mr. Trump grew frustrated over the past year, diplomats tried to package an American 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 American troop withdrawal.

Now, the decision to reduce American 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 create a significant shift away from the United States military’s longstanding mission of training the Afghan military as American 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 American bargaining chip in any negotiations with the Taliban to end the long war.

But from the start, Mr. Trump made it abundantly clear that he wanted out of Afghanistan.

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

a man wearing a military uniform: American soldiers at a base in Helmand. © Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times American soldiers at a base in Helmand.

Much of the initial effort by American negotiators was trying to persuade the Taliban that the United States was truly committed to Afghanistan and that the insurgents should get out of their head any thoughts of waiting out the Americans.

American military officials, though wary of leaving Afghanistan altogether, had signed off on at least the first stages of a troop drawdown envisioned in a draft peace agreement that would have seen 5,400 American troops leave the country over about five months.

The partial departure was put forward as a measure 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, with Mr. Trump pulling the plug on the deal his diplomats had finalized and initialed after a year of negotiations.

American 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, Mr. Esper also said a peace agreement was “the best way forward.”

The current process of troop reduction outside of peace talks gives more control over the process to General Miller and the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which had criticized the United States for negotiating a troop withdrawal with the insurgents rather than with the country’s elected government.

Last year in January, Mr. Ghani had tried to appeal to Mr. Trump that he could negotiate any troop reduction with the goal of cutting costs for the United States directly with the Afghan government.

General Miller had long set out a goal of an 8,600-member troop force as being both a desired level and as the minimum needed to support the Afghan military, according to two defense officials.

General Miller, a Special Operations officer by trade, has a reputation for whittling down military units and commands to “trim the fat” and best accomplish their mission.

In the last year that he has led the Afghan mission, American troops have focused on seeking out proactive leadership for Afghan forces who can better carry the burden of the war, while the United States can focus its resources in backing them up with air power.

At the height of the war, in 2010 and 2011, there were more than 100,000 American 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 American 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, on whether a reduction in American 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.

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