The US. plans to dramatically cut troop levels in Afghanistan as President Donald Trump reshapes America’s foreign commitments and fulfills long-standing promises to bring military forces home.
The Pentagon will withdraw 7,000 of about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. defense official. The decision emerged a day after Trump said he would pull U.S. forces from Syria, a move most of his national security team had opposed for months. And it comes as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced plans to resign, citing differences with Trump over the value of America’s alliances and leadership in the world.
Trump has long criticized the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan, the longest military conflict in U.S. history and one that has cost about 2,300 American lives. He only reluctantly agreed to his military advisers’ request to allow about 4,000 more troops to be sent to the country last year.
Since American troops first arrived in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the U.S. has appropriated about $126 billion for relief and reconstruction, including $78 billion for security, according to a July report from a Pentagon watchdog. Yet the U.S. presence and funding couldn’t prevent conditions on the ground from deteriorating.
According to the Pentagon watchdog’s reports, the Kabul government’s grip on the country has been consistently shrinking, civilian deaths have been rising and the production of poppy used to make heroin was surging.
Publicly, Trump’s national security team has said its approach was effective. During a trip to Afghanistan in July, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo insisted that Trump’s strategy to fight the Taliban was working. Those thoughts were similar to those shared by Mattis, who earlier this year called Afghanistan a “tough fight” but said the American effort “is working from our perspective.”
There was an acknowledgement, however, that American firepower could only go so far. The newest commander on the ground, General Scott Miller, said in an October interview with NBC News that the conflict “is not going to be won militarily.”
“My assessment is the Taliban also realizes they cannot win militarily,” Miller told NBC. “So if you realize you can’t win militarily at some point, fighting is just -- people start asking why,” said Miller.
Trump’s decision came hours after the Pentagon published a new quarterly report on Afghanistan that described the military situation as of Nov. 30 as being at “an impasse.” The arrival of additional U.S. advisers this year helped slow “the momentum of a Taliban march that had capitalized on U.S. draw-downs between 2011 and 2016,” it said.
Afghan forces “remain in control of most of Afghanistan’s population centers and all of the provincial capitals, while the Taliban control large portions of Afghanistan’s rural areas, and continue to attack poorly defended government checkpoints and rural district centers,” it said.
The decision to withdraw forces comes as the U.S. tries to broker talks aimed at bringing a more lasting peace to Afghanistan. American officials held talks with Taliban representatives in the United Arab Emirates this week, joined by officials from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the U.A.E.
One sticking point has been the Taliban’s refusal to talk directly with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, saying doing so would be a “waste of time” because they see his government as illegitimate.