- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2019

The signs are mounting that President Trump will move forward with a major U.S. troop drawdown in Afghanistan, even as direct talks with the Taliban have yet to produce a cease-fire accord.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and a confidant of Mr. Trump, told reporters Monday on a visit to Kabul that Mr. Trump is poised to start cutting the number of American military personnel in Afghanistan before the end of the year.

Mr. Trump has made no secret of his desire to reduce the 18-year-old mission in Afghanistan, but Mr. Graham said any withdrawal of U.S. troops must be “conditions-based” and that the Taliban must honor any commitments made in the talks.

NBC News reported over the weekend that the White House wants to cut the U.S. military footprint by about 4,000 troops to around 8,600. The phased withdrawal over the next two months would include some redeployments and some rotations out of the country without replacements.

Afghan officials are confirming the withdrawal. A spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told Voice of America that Washington and Kabul had agreed on the reduction of U.S. military personnel, though the agreement was not linked to any talks with the Taliban.

A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said they had not received any orders to reduce troop levels.

“We remain fully committed to the Resolute Support mission and our Afghan partners and focused on our key objective: ensuring Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the United States, our allies or out interests,” the spokesman said in a statement to The Washington Times.

Although a reduction of about 4,000 personnel cuts the U.S. deployment by a third, a military analyst with The Heritage Foundation said its impact on the mission will be negligible at best.

“All we’re going back to is the troop levels we had under Obama,” said James Carafano, a retired Army lieutenant and current vice president of Heritage’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

Mr. Carafano said the Trump administration deserves credit for building up security forces of the Kabul government to take the lead on countering the Taliban and jihadi groups such as the Islamic State that have flocked to Afghanistan.

“I think we’re in a better place on that than we were three years ago. The Afghan forces have been sustained in the field,” he said. “Our mission is to keep the Afghans in the fight.”

Mr. Trump said on a Thanksgiving visit to U.S. forces in Afghanistan that the Taliban had agreed to a cease-fire and were eager to restart direct talks with Washington. Taliban spokesmen denied that, but Mr. Carafano noted that the insurgents would not be seeking fresh talks if they thought they were winning on the ground.

“There is no victory on the battlefield strategy” for them, he said.

Still, the Taliban remain a military threat to the government in Kabul and the U.S. forces stationed in Afghanistan. Just a week ago, the U.S. had to call in airstrikes to repel a bid by Taliban fighters to breach Bagram Air Field amid a 10-hour firefight as insurgents tried to blow up a medical building under construction near the huge U.S. encampment.

Some American troops may remain in Afghanistan for an extended period, although with a smaller footprint. They will likely continue with two missions: advise and assist the Kabul government and its military and conduct some direct counterterrorist operations.

A smaller figure of American troops may even make the mission more sustainable over the long haul, Mr. Carafano said.

“We’re not fighting a war. We’re not the ones taking the casualties and fighting the battles — that’s the Afghans,” he said. “As the threat goes down, [the American troops are] just like an insurance policy.”

He criticized what he called a “war of bumper stickers” over Afghanistan. There is no large anti-war movement focused on Afghanistan, and any decision on troop levels won’t make much of a political impact, Mr. Carafano said.

“If they went to zero, it wouldn’t get them one more vote,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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