Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said he wants to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan “with or without” a peace agreement in order to give higher priority to strategic competition with China.
Esper told reporters on Monday that Austin Miller, the head of the NATO mission and US Forces Afghanistan “is confident that he can go down to a lower number” of troops.
Miller “believes he can conduct all the important counterterrorism missions and train, advise and assist” the Afghan army, Esper said on a plane as he flew back from Belgium, where he attended the 75th anniversary of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.
“I would like to go to a lower number because I want to either bring those troops home” to retrain for new missions or to “be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition – that’s vis-a-vis China”, he said.
“At the end of the day, the best solution for Afghanistan is a political agreement” between the government and the Taliban, Esper added.
“But I think we can go down [in troops’ numbers] with or without that political agreement.”
Esper said he had not yet ordered any downsizing, noting the decision was ultimately the responsibility of US President Donald Trump.
Also on Monday, US Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking from the Afghan capital Kabul, said the president could reduce troops’ numbers to 8,600, down from the current 12,000.
“If President Trump decides in the next few weeks to reduce our forces below the 12,000 we have, I could support that,” he said.
“The Afghan security forces are getting more capable,” said Graham. “As they achieve capability, the number of US forces necessary can go down.”
Despite his past reluctance to embrace troops’ withdrawal, Graham said he supports Trump’s expected decision.
That is because Graham said 8,600 US troops would be sufficient to guarantee “Afghanistan never becomes a launching pad for another attack against the United States homeland”.
The South Carolina senator said a US withdrawal from Afghanistan must be “condition-based” and the Taliban must keep the promises it has made during talks.
“It’s our goal to withdraw our forces, but it is our ultimate goal to do it in a sustainable fashion. So we don’t have to come back and we don’t undercut our prestige and our standing all over the world,” he said.
Trump said last month he planned to cut the overall troops presence to 8,600, with the possibility of further reductions.
He also insisted in November on the need for a ceasefire and made an unannounced visit to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to celebrate Thanksgiving with troops and meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The president has indicated he wants to wind down US military entanglements abroad wherever possible.