LONDON (Dispatches) – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says any future troop drawdown in Afghanistan is "not necessarily” linked to a deal with Taliban militants, suggesting some lowering of force levels may happen irrespective of the ongoing peace push.
The remarks by Esper in an interview with Reuters came on the heels of a Thanksgiving trip last week to Afghanistan by President Donald Trump, who spoke of potential troop reductions and said he believed the Taliban militancy would agree to a ceasefire in the 18-year-old war.
If honored by all sides, a ceasefire could lead to a significant reduction in violence.
Speaking as he flew to London for a NATO summit, Esper said the Trump administration had been discussing potential reductions in troop levels for some time, both internally and with NATO allies.
"I feel confident that we could reduce our numbers in Afghanistan and still ensure that place doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists who could attack the United States,” Esper said, without offering a figure.
"And our allies agree we can make reductions as well.”
Asked whether such reductions would necessarily be contingent on some sort of agreement with the Taliban insurgency, Esper said: "Not necessarily.”
He did not elaborate.
There are currently about 13,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan as well as thousands of other NATO troops. U.S. officials have said U.S. forces could drop to 8,600 and still carry out an effective, core counter-terrorism mission as well as some limited advising for Afghan forces.
A draft accord agreed in September before talks collapsed would have withdrawn thousands of American troops in exchange for guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States or its allies.