President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to halve the number of American soldiers currently deployed to Afghanistan, even as pro-government forces in the country struggle to fight off an emboldened Taliban.
The decision marks a turning point for U.S. involvement in the 17-year war, to which Trump has been consistently opposed—despite the best efforts of his generals to change his mind.
Around 7,000 troops will be withdrawn, according to The Wall Street Journal—half of the roughly 14,000 currently deployed. This will leave the U.S. with its lowest number of troops in the country since 2002, alongside some 10,000 U.S. citizens working as contractors. There are another 8,000 NATO and allied troops deployed alongside the U.S. contingent.
The order reportedly stunned Afghan government officials, who, according to The New York Times, had not been briefed on the plans.
The announcement caps a turbulent week for the Pentagon. It came one day after the White House confirmed it would withdraw all American forces from Syria and just hours after Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said he would leave his post in February, blaming conflicting foreign policy views between the president and the former Marine Corps general.
Trump has long criticized the deployment of U.S. troops to hotspots in the Middle East and Asia and on the campaign trail vowed to end American involvement in the wars of his predecessors. But early in his presidency, senior advisors such as Mattis and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster were able to convince Trump to stay the course—and even boost troop numbers—in Afghanistan.
But as more moderate and experienced officials have left the administration or been side-lined, the president is increasingly free to follow his foreign policy instincts. The decision to draw down the Afghanistan mission was made at the same time as the decision to leave Syria entirely, according to a defense official who spoke to the Times.
The U.S. has been conducting peace talks with Taliban representatives, but violence still besets the country. Recent years have seen an emboldened Taliban launch ever-more-audacious attacks on major Afghan cities—including Kabul—while consolidating and expanding the area under their control.
Meanwhile, both sides are contending with the arrival of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). A local affiliate of the global terror group has set up shop in Afghanistan, and has engaged in a vicious war for influence and control with both the Taliban and government forces. Local ISIS cells have been behind some of the most deadly attacks on Kabul in recent years.
Afghan troops have struggled against the Taliban and have suffered consistently high casualties, even with U.S. troops and aircraft in support. Since the U.S. declared the end of combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, more than 25,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed.
Earlier this month, the incoming commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Lieutenant Richard Clarke, told senators the Taliban are thought to be around 60,000-strong—a much higher number than has been estimated by the military in the past.
An American official told the Times an American withdrawal would help make local forces more self-reliant, but whether they are ready is another question. It is likely the Taliban, emboldened by recent battlefield successes, will only become more aggressive as U.S. deployments dwindle. This will endanger both local and U.S. forces who remain on the front lines.
Fazl Fazly, chief adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, was bullish in a statement following the announcement. “If the few thousand foreign troops that advise, train and assist leave, it will not affect our security,” he said. “In the past four and half years our security is completely in the hands of Afghans and the final goal is that Afghan national defense and security forces will stand on their feet to protect and defend our people and soil on their own.”
Thirteen Americans have been killed in Afghanistan this year, the latest of the 2,400 who have died there since 2001.