U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a Sunday interview that the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will drop below 5,000 by the end of November.
“We’re going down to a number less than 5,000 by the end of November,” Esper said during an interview with Fox News, adding “we need to brief Congress [about] what that looks like.”
Esper said the troop withdrawal would happen if certain conditions are met, and as long as the Pentagon felt confident U.S. missions in Afghanistan wouldn’t be compromised by fewer troops.
“Right now, we think that we can do all the core missions, first and foremost being ensuring the United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of Afghanistan,” Esper said. “We can do those at a lower level. In the meantime, we see the Afghan peace process — it’s not perfect, but it’s moving forward, slowly. You know it’s a windy road. It’s a rough road.”
The troop reduction follows a deal signed between the U.S. and the Taliban in February, laying out a process to reduce U.S. troop levels in the country while facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. There are currently around 8,600 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the U.S. having withdrawn around 4,000 troops from the approximately 13,000 that were in the country before the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.
The U.S. plans to ultimately leave Afghanistan entirely under the terms of the peace deal, but continued Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces in recent months have slowed the peace process and delayed intra-Afghan discussions.
The U.S. has also carried out defensive strikes to deter Taliban attacks on Afghan government positions.
The Afghan government has released thousands of Taliban prisoners as a Taliban requested pre-condition to hold intra-Afghan talks. Most recently, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani agreed to release 400 Taliban militants. Former Afghan President Hamad Karzai said on Sunday he expects intra-Afghan talks to begin within the coming two or three days.
In a recent interview with Axios, Trump suggested the large portion of the troop reduction below 5,000 could come before the 2020 U.S. presidential election on November 3rd.
“We’re going down to 4,000. We’re negotiating right now,” Trump said.
Trump said the number of U.S. troops would be “probably anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000” on election day.
There were approximately 8,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan when Trump took office, though the number had gone up to around 14,00 after a troop surge.