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US Defense Chief says he’s fine with Afghan troop reduction ‘with or without’ peace deal

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper addresses the Reagan National Defense Forum, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, California, Dec. 7, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on December 15 said he wants a drawdown of soldiers in Afghanistan “with or without” a peace deal, while voicing confidence that the head of the NATO mission in the country could carry out current tasks with fewer numbers.

The administration of President Donald Trump may announce a troop reduction of around 4,000 soldiers before the end of the year year, according to U.S. media.

There are an estimated 12,000 to 13,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan at any given time, depending on troop rotations.

Esper told reporters that Austin Miller, the commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and U.S. forces, “is confident that he can go down to a lower number” of soldiers, according to AFP.

Miller “believes he can conduct all the important counterterrorism missions and train, advise, and assist” the Afghan Army, Esper said.

The defense secretary added that he would like to see a political agreement sealed between the Afghan government and the Taliban to end the 18-year war.

U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week resumed talks with Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha, where the insurgents maintain a political office.

“But I think we can [reduce the number of troops] with or without that political agreement,” Esper said.

Meanwhile, on the same day, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) reiterated Trump’s wish to reduce the number of troops to 8,600 during a visit to Kabul.

‘”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 U.S. forces necessary can go down.”