The decision to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is linked to the intra-Afghan negotiations, retired U.S. General Joseph Votel told VOA in an interview.
“It would seem that the start of this [intra-Afghan peace process] would be an opportunity where we could take a measure like this,” Votel said.
General Votel, who served as a commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from March 2016 to March 2019, underscored, however, that the United States and its allies have “significant military capabilities” in the region that could respond in case of increased violence in Afghanistan.
“I think that we have the capabilities to respond to that very, very quickly, so the reduction in forces on the ground doesn't necessarily mean that we don't have the ability to bring resources back in there or use resources that remain for that.”
The U.S. announced last week it would reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan from 8,600 to 4,500 by November.
CENTCOM commander, Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, in an interview last week with VOA and two other media outlets, said the withdrawal of more than 4,000 troops by November is a goodwill gesture.
He added that the U.S. wants to show it does not “want to be an occupying force in this country, but we do have interests, vital interests, that compel us to be certain that these entities such as al-Qaida and ISIS [Islamic State] can’t be guests there to attack the United States.”
The U.S.-Taliban deal, signed in February, has stipulated a phased withdrawal of all U.S. forces by May 2020, but only if the Taliban meet the conditions in the agreement, cutting ties with al-Qaida and negotiating a peace deal with the Afghan government.
Votel added that he hopes the U.S. will maintain a military presence in Afghanistan to support Afghan forces to defend themselves against internal and external threats.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday at an online event at the Atlantic Council that there were fewer than 200 al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan.
Votel said that although the number al-Qaida operatives could be less than 200, the U.S. has concerns about several other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and the region.
A U.N. report released in May that quoted Afghan officials said several foreign militant groups and thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan could pose a security threat even if the Afghan government and the Taliban reach a cease-fire.
The Afghan government and Taliban Saturday began the long-awaited intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar. The talks are expected to focus on a permanent cease-fire and a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has continued its attacks on Afghan security forces across the country. Afghan government sources told VOA that at least 30 security personnel and dozens of Taliban were killed Thursday when the Taliban attacked Afghan forces in two districts in the eastern Nangarhar province.
Some experts say the Taliban use the attacks as a form of leverage in the talks.
“The Taliban use of violence is their main form of leverage. And they have shown in the lead of the talks that they will increase violence, increase attacks on the Afghan forces in order to pressure the other side,” Scott Worden, the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, told VOA.
General Votel agreed the Taliban leverage acts of violence, but he noted the Afghan government’s advantage is that it has the U.S. and coalition support.
The U.S. has been engaged in building regional consensus for peace in Afghanistan, said Votel.
“Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad has led a lengthy political process to get to this point, two-plus years invested in building consensus” among regional powers to start the intra-Afghan peace talks, said Votel.
Pakistan and India, the two regional rivals, should see that peace is in their interest, said Votel, adding, “it is in their interest, I think to see a resolution to this problem in Afghanistan, to see a peaceful Afghanistan.”
The U.S. envoy for Afghan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, visited Pakistan and India soon after the opening of the intra-Afghan talks.
Khalilzad spoke with the Pakistani leadership Monday and conveyed Washington’s appreciation for Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process.
Pakistani leaders take credit for bringing the Taliban to the table, signing a peace deal with the U.S., and starting the talks with the Afghan government.
Afghan and Western officials have accused Pakistan, particularly its military establishment, with supporting and sheltering the Taliban since the group’s collapse in 2001.
Pakistan has rejected those accusations, saying it has suffered human and financial losses in the war against terror groups crossing Afghan borders.
Khalilzad also met with Indian officials Tuesday and discussed the process. He stressed that “regional and international support is critical for the success of these negotiations and the implementation of any agreement,” according to a statement by the U.S. embassy in Delhi.
VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb and Ahmadullah Archiwal from Washington, and Ayaz Gul from Islamabad, contributed to this report.