The Trump administration is close to finalizing a decision to withdraw more than 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the fall, according to two administration officials.
The move would reduce the number of troops from 8,600 to 4,500 and would be the lowest number since the very earliest days of the war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001.
It would pave the way for a US exit which President Donald Trump remains determined to achieve.
Yet the discussions are taking place against the backdrop of an uptick in violence from the Taliban against the Afghan government, despite the insurgent group signing an historic agreement with the US in February and as the Trump administration has appeared to hold back on its criticism of the Taliban.
While the decision is not final, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper discussed the plan with NATO allies last week and the topic was revisited in his meetings with NATO officials in Brussels Friday.
“We will also follow up on our discussion on Afghanistan. NATO will continue to adjust our presence in support of the peace process,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday alongside Esper before their meeting. “This will be done in close coordination with Allies and partners.”
Under the agreement signed with the Taliban in February, the US committed to pulling all of its troops out of Afghanistan by next April – within 14 months of its signing – if the Taliban upheld certain commitments in the agreement. The Taliban committed to preventing terrorist groups using Afghan territory to threaten the US and its allies, breaking ties with groups which threaten the US, and pursuing intra-Afghan negotiations.
As part of that deal, the US also agreed to reduce the number of troops from about 13,000 to 8,600 by early July. The US has already hit that 8,600 figure, ahead of schedule, two US officials told CNN.
It is unclear when the withdrawal of the 4,000 additional US troops, a policy decision in its final stages, will begin. US officials at the State Department and the Pentagon have reiterated that any reduction below the 8,600 mark would be “conditions based.”
“US force levels in Afghanistan remain in the mid-8,000s. Additional drawdowns beyond this number remain conditions-based according to the US Government’s assessment of the overall security environment and Taliban compliance with the US-Taliban agreement,” Pentagon spokesman Major Rob Lodewick, told CNN.
The National Security Council did not reply to a request for comment.
Reduced levels will mean US likely to struggle to carry out missions
Under the plan to reduce troop levels to 4,500 by the fall the US military will likely struggle to carry out the missions it is currently tasked with in the country.
The training and advising of local Afghan forces will likely have to be scaled back considerably in the event of such a drastic reduction, leaving the Afghans vulnerable as the Taliban continues to carry out attacks on the military and police.
The remaining US troops will likely focus on counterterrorism operations targeting the local ISIS affiliate, ISIS-K, which retains a presence in the east of the country, as well as remnants of al Qaeda. A recent UN report found that the Taliban has retained links with al Qaeda despite the US-Taliban agreement.
But many will be concerned the US is withdrawing too fast.
Last month, the top US Commander overseeing military operations across the Middle East said the conditions that would allow for a complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan “have not been fully met,” despite the agreement with the Taliban.
“If conditions will allow we are prepared to go to zero, however the important phrase is if conditions will allow. Those conditions would be you know can we be assured that attacks against us will not be generated there and as of right now I don’t think those conditions, frankly if asked my opinion those conditions have not been fully met,” said Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command.
Trump administration officials also acknowledge that the commander in chief is the ultimate decision maker when it comes to troop levels.