The United States has quietly reduced the number of US troops in Afghanistan by 2,000 over the last year despite the lack of a peace deal with the Taliban, Gen. Scott Miller, the head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in a press conference in Kabul on Monday.
“We’ve reduced our authorized strength by 2,000 here, so there’s a constant look as a military commander to optimize the force here,” Miller said.
“I am confident we have the right capabilities,” Miller added while speaking alongside the US defense secretary and Afghan defense and interior ministers.
Prior to the reduction, the Pentagon publicly said that the US military had about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the majority of those tasked with training local Afghan forces.
US officials say the reduction has been ongoing for months, part of an effort by Miller, an officer who has spent much of his career in the Special Operations Forces, to streamline the US presence in the country and is not part of any broader potential reductions that have been linked to a possible peace deal with the Taliban, the prospects for which were thrown into doubt after President Donald Trump called off secret talks with the Taliban at Camp David.
Speaking alongside Miller, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the reductions were in line with similar efficiency efforts that other US military commands were undergoing.
Trump had previously said that he was going to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600, with the remaining forces to be focused on counterterrorism missions against groups like al Qaeda and the local ISIS affiliate.
“We’re going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there as to what happens … we’re bringing it down,” Trump said in August.
US officials had said such a reduction would be tied to a negotiated deal with the Taliban that would result in a reduction in violence and therefore allow for the smaller US military footprint.
Despite the smaller footprint the US has ramped up the number of air and artillery strikes it has conducted against the Taliban, ISIS and al Qaeda in the country.
While en route to Afghanistan, Esper told reporters that he was confident the US could maintain its counterterrorism capability there with 8,600 troops.
Asked if the US would reduce to that level without a deal with the Taliban, Esper said, “I don’t want to get ahead of the diplomats on that front. I’m just saying I know what we can go down to, and feel confident based on reports I’ve gotten from the commander on the ground.”
Esper also addressed a question on whether the Afghans can trust that Trump will not suddenly pull troops from the country as he has from Syria in recent days, a move that had led many to accuse the Trump administration of betraying its allies there.
Esper called the two situations “very, very different” pointing to different policy goals, levels of commitment and the threat posed to US troops by Turkey’s incursion in Syria.
“All of these things, I think, should reassure our Afghan allies and others that they should not misinterpret our actions in the recent week or so with regard to Syria and contrast that with Afghanistan,” Esper said.
Miller’s comments came as a bipartisan congressional delegation was also visiting Afghanistan.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with a delegation of US members of Congress, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at the Presidential palace on Sunday, Ghani’s office said in a statement on Monday.