The Pentagon has started planning to have zero U.S. troops in Afghanistan by spring, though orders have not yet been issued for a full withdrawal, a Defense Department official said Tuesday.
“I’d like to make it clear that [Defense Secretary Mark Esper] has not issued orders to reduce military personnel below this 4,000 to 5,000 level in Afghanistan, although we are conducting prudent planning to withdraw to zero service members by May 2021 if conditions warrant, per the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” David Helvey, the official performing the duties of assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security at a hearing.
The comments come as President Trump has been touting U.S. troop drawdowns in the region in the final stretch of the campaign as evidence he is delivering on his promise to end America’s “endless wars.”
The comments also come as the Taliban and Afghan government have started peace talks in Doha, Qatar, aimed at ending the 19-year war.
But the two sides remain far apart on issues as basic as a cease-fire and women’s rights. And even as they sit down to talk, violence in Afghanistan rages, with Monday reportedly the bloodiest day of fighting since negotiations began a week ago.
The intra-Afghan talks were called for in the agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February.
The agreement also laid out a timeline for a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to attack the West.
“The Taliban has still not shown conclusively that they’re going to break with al Qaeda,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said earlier this month. “So there are still some things out there that concern me about the Taliban’s either ability or willingness to comply with all the terms of the deal.”
On Tuesday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s envoy for Afghan peace talks, said the Taliban has taken “positive steps” toward breaking with al Qaeda, though he said the Taliban has more work to do and would not answer a question in an unclassified setting on whether Taliban leaders have instructed their fighters to break from the terrorist group.
“We look for more steps before we are satisfied, and I believe that once we reach 4,500, we’d do an evaluation of ties and actions that they have taken and make decisions based on that,” Khalilzad said at the hearing.
The U.S. withdrawal is contingent on the counterterrorism commitment, not the outcome of intra-Afghan talks or the Taliban reducing attacks on Afghan forces.
U.S. lawmakers have been critical of the deal with the Taliban, warning the insurgents cannot be trusted and expressing concerns the drawdown is based more on Trump’s political calendar than national security needs.
“Despite multiple indications that the Taliban have not fully met their commitments under the February agreement, the Trump administration has steadily withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan, which has ceded much of our leverage to help shape the future of Afghanistan for its people and our national security interests,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee.
“While we are all eager for our sons and daughters in uniform to return home, it is also important that we do not needlessly or recklessly bargain away the rights and freedoms that the Afghan people have gained at such a huge cost in American, Coalition, and Afghan lives,” he added.
Helvey insisted any withdrawal by May will be “fundamentally conditions based.”
“We’ll be watching very carefully to assess the conditions of Taliban compliance with the terms of its agreement, and that will be used to inform decisions on further and future withdrawals,” he said.
Pressed on enforcement of the agreement, Khalilzad said “we are freed” from the deal if the Taliban does not uphold its commitments.
“That’s why I say it’s conditions-based,” he said. “That means if they don’t deliver on their commitments, we don’t have to withdraw forces. We could adjust our force posture. Those are decisions that our management will have to make.”