President Donald Trump said US troop levels in Afghanistan were being reduced to 8 600 but American forces would remain in the country even if Washington reaches an agreement with the Taliban to end the 18-year war.
“Oh yeah, you have to keep a presence,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News radio. “We’re going to keep a presence there. We’re reducing that presence substantially and we’re going to always have a presence. We’re going to have high intelligence.”
Trump said the US force level in Afghanistan was being reduced to 8 600 “and then we make a determination as to what happens.” Some 14 000 US service members are currently in Afghanistan, with about 5 000 dedicated to counter-insurgency operations.
The Taliban said it was close to a “final agreement” with US officials on a deal that would see US forces withdraw in exchange for a pledge the country would not become a haven for other Islamist militant groups.
“We hope to have good news soon for our Muslim, independence-seeking nation,” Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban political office in Doha said.
Both US and Taliban negotiators reported progress in recent talks, raising the prospect of an end to the conflict. Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for peace in Afghanistan was due to travel to Kabul this week to meet Afghan leaders.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted its Taliban leaders after they refused to hand ove al Qaeda militant group members behind the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
Trump has long called for an end to US involvement in Afghanistan, writing on Twitter seven years ago the war was “a complete waste” and six years ago “we should leave Afghanistan immediately.”
Since becoming president in January 2017, he repeatedly said he could end the Afghanistan war quickly if he didn’t mind killing millions, a claim he repeated in the Fox News radio interview.
“We could win that war so fast if I wanted to kill 10 million people which I don’t. I’m not looking to kill a big portion of that country,” Trump said.
He denied the United States was acting quickly by reducing troop levels, something he criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for doing in Iraq.
“We have to watch Afghanistan, but we’re bringing it down,” he said.
Trump warned any attack on the United States from Afghan territory would bring a massive response.
“We will come back with a force they’ve never seen before,” Trump told Fox News radio.
On Wednesday Marine General Joseph Dunford told reporters it was too early to talk about the future of US counter-terrorism troops in Afghanistan.
“I think it’s premature to talk about what our counter-terrorism presence in Afghanistan may or may not be without a better appreciation for the conditions,” said Dunford, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
He said in the current security environment, Afghan security forces needed US support to deal with violence.
“If an agreement happens in the future, if the security environment changes, then obviously our posture may adjust,” Dunford said.