KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States is already reducing the size of its troop force in Afghanistan despite the lack of a peace deal with the Taliban, at a time when President Trump has expressed reluctance to remain engaged in costly wars abroad.
In a news conference on Monday, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, confirmed that the size of the American force in the country had already quietly dropped by 2,000 over the last year, down to roughly 12,000.
Other American and Afghan officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the plan, said that the eventual force size could drop to as low as 8,600 — roughly the size of an initial reduction envisioned in a draft agreement with the Taliban before Mr. Trump halted peace talks last month. Rather than a formal withdrawal order, they are reducing the force through a gradual process of not replacing troops as they cycle out.
A senior Afghan official said the Afghan government had signed off on the reduction. Officials would not discuss other details of the drawdown, including any specific timeline for it.
The confirmation came during a visit to Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, and after months of debate within the Trump administration on meeting the president’s goal of stopping what he has recently called “endless wars.”
Earlier in his visit, Mr. Esper seemed to allude to some potential reduction in American forces, saying that drawing down to 8,600 troops would not affect important counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
As Mr. Trump grew frustrated over the past year, diplomats tried to package an American troop reduction as a bargaining chip in peace talks with the Taliban, hoping to get some concessions from the insurgent group, which has long demanded a complete American troop withdrawal.
The decision to reduce American troops even before a deal with the Taliban means the United States is weakening its hand in future negotiations with the insurgents. And it is likely to mean a significant shift away from the United States military’s longstanding mission of training the Afghan military as American officials concentrate on counterterrorism operations, officials said.
Reducing the number of troops ahead of a complete departure from the country was always the most important American bargaining chip in any negotiations with the Taliban to end the long war. But from the start, Mr. Trump made it abundantly clear that he wanted out of Afghanistan.
At one stage halfway through the yearlong negotiations, Mr. Trump stumbled during a Fox interview, incorrectly saying that the number of American troops in Afghanistan was 9,000 and not the 14,000 it was listed at. Many, including some Taliban officials taking part in the talks in Qatar, read that as confirmation that the American decision to draw down had already been made whether the Taliban offered concessions or not.
Much of the initial effort by American negotiators was trying to persuade the Taliban that the United States was truly committed to Afghanistan, while signaling that the insurgents should not try to wait out the Americans.
American military officials, though wary of leaving Afghanistan altogether, had signed off on the first stages of a troop drawdown in a draft peace agreement that would have seen 5,400 American troops leave the country over about five months. The measure was put forward to show the Taliban that the Americans would abide by the proposed deal in return for the insurgent group reducing violence in Afghanistan, according to officials taking part in the negotiations.
But the peace talks collapsed last month when Mr. Trump pulled the plug on the deal his diplomats had finalized and initialed after a year of negotiations.
American officials have since quietly signaled that they are trying to keep the talks with the Taliban alive. Earlier this month, the chief negotiator for the United States, Zalmay Khalilzad, met informally with Taliban officials in Pakistan.
During his visit, Mr. Esper also said a peace agreement was “the best way forward.”
The current process of troop reduction outside of peace talks gives more control over the process to General Miller and the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which had criticized the United States for negotiating a troop withdrawal with the insurgents rather than with the country’s elected government.
Last year in January, Mr. Ghani, perceiving that Mr. Trump urgently wanted to cut costs in Afghanistan, said he would be happy to directly negotiate some degree of troop reductions with the Americans if they would avoid rushing into a bad deal with Taliban.
General Miller had long set out a goal of an 8,600-member troop force as being both a desired level and as the minimum needed to support the Afghan military, according to two defense officials.
General Miller, a Special Operations officer by trade, has a reputation for whittling down military units and commands to “trim the fat” and best accomplish their mission. In the last year that he has led the Afghan mission, American troops have focused on seeking out proactive leadership for Afghan forces who can better carry the burden of the war, while the United States can focus its resources in backing them up with air power.
At the height of the war, in 2010 and 2011, there were more than 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan, aided by tens of thousands of NATO allies in what made up one of the biggest military coalitions in the world.
Now, a further reduction in American forces would mean that the burden of training the Afghan military would fall more heavily on the roughly 8,500 NATO forces and other allies in the country.
It is unclear, however, whether a reduction in American forces might lead to some reconsideration by NATO allies as well. In a recent interview with The New York Times, NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, would not speculate on any reduction of troops, but added that NATO remains committed to the mission in Afghanistan.
“We have adjusted that many times, and we will always assess exactly the way and the composition of our forces in Afghanistan,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
The plan to shrink the force in Afghanistan comes as much of the world’s attention has been focused on the retreat of American forces from the front line in Syria as Turkish-backed troops advance into the country. And in many ways, the changes in Syria and Afghanistan are linked.
In December, on the heels of Mr. Trump’s first announcement that American forces would be leaving Syria, he also demanded the withdrawal of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan. Mr. Trump’s orders sent the Pentagon and the American command in the Middle East scrambling in an effort to persuade Mr. Trump otherwise, officials say.
It was clear that the Taliban, too, have been closely watching the events in Syria, where the Trump administration allowed Turkey to move against Kurdish fighters who had long been closely allied with American forces.
“The U.S. follows its interests everywhere, and once it doesn’t reach those interests, it leaves the area. The best example of that is the abandoning of the Kurds in Syria,” Khairullah Khairkhwa, one of the Taliban’s senior negotiators, was quoted as saying in an interview posted on the insurgent group’s website recently. “It’s clear the Kabul administration will face the same fate.”
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