President Trump said that there would be fewer than 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan by Election Day in November, signaling that the United States would continue to withdraw troops from the country despite limited progress toward the start of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“We’re going down to 4,000, we’re negotiating right now,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with Axios that was filmed on July 28 and released in full Monday night.
The president’s statement seems to undercut U.S. diplomats’ repeated assertions that any further troop reductions in Afghanistan would be based on the Taliban’s commitment to the Feb. 29 peace agreement signed with the United States. After the signing, the U.S. military is supposed to completely withdraw from Afghanistan in 14 months, a move that senior military officials have called “aspirational.”
Mr. Trump’s drive to pull U.S. forces from war zones, especially Afghanistan, has often put the White House at loggerheads with the State Department, as American negotiators and military officials have tried to keep an already shaky peace process on track.
In the interview, Mr. Trump called the U.S. involvement in the Middle East “the single biggest mistake in the history of our country.”
The agreement with the Taliban “calls for additional conditions-based troop withdrawals as the peace process evolves,” Maj. Rob Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “The president’s direction on the issue has been clear, and the department is moving to effectively implement that guidance in consultation with Congress and in close coordination with our NATO and partner nations.”
The Taliban continues to attack Afghan troops, and the United States military has bombed the insurgent group dozens of times in their defense since the agreement. The American-led mission has refused to publicly acknowledge the strikes. The Taliban have agreed not to attack American and NATO coalition forces, but Afghan forces continue to be targeted despite hopes that there would be a reduction in violence after the deal.
This summer, the Pentagon prepared several options for further troop reductions, including a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan before Election Day, a move that would most likely abandon any hope of a U.S.-moderated peace settlement in the country.
Senior military officials had anticipated a politically motivated decision by Mr. Trump, much like his moves to pull troops out of Syria.
The president’s decision to move from 8,600 to about 5,000 troops was the Pentagon’s preferred option of those proposed, defense officials said. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic has already greatly restricted U.S. military operations in the country, making some troops already deployed there next to useless because many of their roles require in-person training with Afghan forces.
As part of the February agreement, the U.S. military cut its numbers in Afghanistan from 12,000 to about 8,600 and closed several bases. Negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were supposed to start months ago but have been held up over a prisoner exchange between the two sides.
Also part of the deal is a public declaration from the Taliban to denounce and split from Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and a longtime ally of the insurgent group. There has been little indication that has changed after the agreement, according to military officials.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on Monday with the Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, regarding the prisoner exchange, Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter.
Both sides “emphasized that the release of the remaining prisoners are essential for commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Mr. Shaheen said.
The U.S.-Taliban deal called for the Afghan government to free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Taliban-held members of the Afghan security forces. While the Taliban has released the Afghan prisoners, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has been reluctant to release 400 Taliban prisoners accused of serious crimes.
On Sunday, militants stormed a prison in eastern Afghanistan, leaving 29 people dead. The attack, in the waning hours of a brief cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government, was claimed by the Islamic State affiliate in the country.