Two days after the United States signed a provisional peace deal with the Taliban, senior Pentagon leaders said the Trump administration will move ahead with plans to withdraw from Afghanistan — even as Taliban officials vow to continue their attacks on the government and amid signs that conditions for intra-Afghan talks are already faltering.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that the United States will begin to draw down to 8,600 troops — starting in the next 10 days — whether or not there is continued violence on behalf of the Taliban. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley cautioned that ongoing attacks are likely inevitable.
“This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road. There will be ups and downs. We’ll stop and start,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. “That’s going to be the nature of this, over the next days, weeks, and months.”
The U.S.-Taliban deal, signed Saturday, envisions an immediate withdrawal down to 8,600 troops and a complete U.S. withdrawal within 14 months. Talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban are set to begin on March 10. But the implementation of the deal has already hit several public snags. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has rejected the agreement’s provision for a Taliban prisoner exchange;Taliban officials have declared their intent to resume operations against Ghani’s U.S.-backed government. A Taliban spokesman said the seven-day “reduction in violence” period that preceded the signing of the deal was only put in place to allow the deal to go forward. But he added that the group will hold to its promise to not attack U.S. forces.
“I would caution everybody to think that there’s going to be an absolute cessation of violence in Afghanistan — that is probably not going to happen. It’s probably not going to go to zero,” Milley said, calling the agreement “a significant step forward.”
But the initial drawdown will go forward immediately, Esper said, despite the Taliban’s declaration and the disconnect over the prisoner exchange.
“What we’ll do is, is we’re going to go to 8,600 and we’re going to stop and we’ll assess the situation, not just tactically on the ground but also are all the parties living up to their obligations and commitments,” Esper said.
He emphasized that U.S. commitments under the deal were “conditions-based” and that a U.S. withdrawal could be “paused” at any moment. “But we are going to show good faith and begin to withdraw our troops,” he said.
As for ongoing violence between the Taliban and government forces, Esper said, “Our expectation is that a reduced level of violence would occur and it would decrease over time.”
Some 8,600 troops — roughly the number in Afghanistan at the end of the Obama administration — is probably the minimum number needed to continue to carry out counterterrorism missions, former officials say. Anything less than that, and the United States would start to lose valuable intelligence capabilities across the sprawling nation, they say.
President Trump, who campaigned on ending the war, has made no secret of his desire to get the United States out of Afghanistan. Although Trump was convinced by defense leaders to send more troops to Afghanistan in the early days of his presidency, the administration came close to clinching a deal with the Taliban last summer. Trump abruptly called off the talks in September after a Taliban attack killed a U.S. soldier.
But his efforts to bring about a swift end to the 19-year conflict has faced resistance from hawkish Republicans on Capitol Hill. Allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., praised the deal, while a group of GOP House members led by Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., argued in a letter that it could hurt American security and warned that the Taliban has “a history of extracting concessions in exchange for false assurances.”
On Monday, a blast at a soccer pitch in Khost killed at least three, according to the provincial governor. No group has claimed the attack, and the United States has not yet determined who carried it out, Milley said. But the attack amplified critics’ fears that the Trump administration is looking for a quick exit with no meaningful guarantee of peace.
Frustration with the lengthy conflict — which has killed 2,400 Americans and thousands more Afghan citizens — has grown into a national mood in recent years. Democratic presidential candidates are also calling for either an outright withdrawal or a substantial drawdown.
Trump on Saturday hailed the deal, saying that he believed it would be successful because “everybody is tired of war.”
“I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show that we’re not all wasting time, “Trump said. “If bad things happen, we’ll go back. I let the people know: We’ll go back and we’ll go back so fast, and we’ll go back with a force like nobody has ever seen.”
But, he added, “I don’t think that will be necessary.”