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Esper: US troops can drawdown 'with or without' Afghan peace deal

17 Dec 2019 Al Jazeera

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he wants to reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan "with or without" a peace agreement in order to give higher priority to strategic competition with China.

The Trump administration is expected to announce plans to withdraw about 4,000 troops from Afghanistan, according to US media, after peace talks resumed a week ago between the US and the Taliban.

Esper told reporters on Monday that Austin Miller, the head of the NATO mission and US Forces Afghanistan "is confident that he can go down to a lower number" of troops.


Miller "believes he can conduct all the important counter-terrorism missions and train, advise and assist" the Afghan army, Esper said on a plane as he flew back from Belgium, where he attended the 75th anniversary of WWII's Battle of the Bulge.

"I would like to go to a lower number because I want to either bring those troops home" to retrain for new missions or to "be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition - that's vis-a-vis China", he said.

"At the end of the day, the best solution for Afghanistan is a political agreement" between the government and the Taliban, Esper added.

"But I think we can go down [in troop numbers] with or without that political agreement."

'More capable'

Esper said he had not yet ordered any downsizing, noting the decision was ultimately the responsibility of US President Donald Trump.

Also on Monday, US Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking from the Afghan capital Kabul, said the president could reduce troop numbers to 8,600, down from the current 12,000. 

"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 US forces necessary can go down."

Despite his past reluctance to embrace a troop withdrawal, Graham said he supports Trump's expected drawdown.


That's because Graham said 8,600 US troops would be sufficient to guarantee "Afghanistan never becomes a launching pad for another attack against the United States homeland".

The South Carolina senator said a US withdrawal from Afghanistan must be "condition-based" and the Taliban must keep the promises they've made during talks.

"It's our goal to withdraw our forces, but it is our ultimate goal to do it in a sustainable fashion. So we don't have to come back and we don't undercut our prestige and our standing all over the world," he said .

Trump said last month he planned to cut the overall troop presence to 8,600, with further reductions possible.

He also in November insisted on the need for a ceasefire and made an unannounced visit to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan to celebrate Thanksgiving with troops and meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

The president has indicated he wants to wind down US military entanglements abroad wherever possible.

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