The US now has fewer than 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan, putting the Trump administration ahead of schedule on the commitment to drawdown troops that it made in the US-Taliban peace deal signed earlier this year, three sources familiar with the numbers tell CNN.
The US has until mid-July to fulfill its pledge to reduce troops to 8,600, from the total 12,000 to 13,000 in the country earlier this year. But it could hit that goal in a few weeks — months before the deadline – explained one US official.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the drawdown somewhat, one US defense official said. There has been a pause in a significant amount of military training activity due to the virus, which has made it easier to send some US troops home.
The Pentagon said it wasn’t providing updates on current troop levels “due to operational security concerns associated with the draw down,” but said in a statement that the drawdown is ongoing.
“US Forces Afghanistan continues to reduce force levels and expects to be at 8,600 US troops within 135 days (mid-July) as stipulated by the US-Taliban agreement,” the Pentagon said. US Forces Afghanistan also “remains committed to supporting our Afghan partners throughout the process and maintains the capabilities and authorities necessary to accomplish our train, advise and assist and counterterrorism objectives.”
Earlier this year, the US-led international coalition in Afghanistan implemented measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including temporarily pausing the movement of personnel into Afghanistan and delaying the return of some service members.
Trump has reiterated his desire in recent weeks to keep moving forward with drawdown, two administration officials said. But there are no current plans or orders to pull all US troops out at a faster rate than the 14-month complete withdrawal that the US committed to earlier this year, they said.
While the troop withdrawal is ahead of schedule, diplomacy is behind schedule.
Intra-Afghan negotiations have not begun and the effort to release as many as 5,000 Taliban prisoners has not been successfully completed. While efforts remain on both fronts, the initial deadlines laid out in the late February US-Taliban agreement have come and gone.
US officials expected the pandemic would potentially speed up the prisoner release, given that their release could drive down the number of infected prisoners in Afghanistan. The pandemic has not appeared to have that impact and the Taliban have increased their deadly attacks on Afghan forces since signing the deal with the US earlier this year.
The UN assistance mission in Afghanistan issued a report this month that found that the number of civilians killed by the Taliban increased in the weeks following their signing of the agreement with the US government.