U.S. President Donald Trump has said the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will be reduced to “anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000” troops by November this year.
Trump’s remarks to Axios for HBO came as the Afghan Taliban has said its chief peace negotiator in a video meeting on Monday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the state of the Afghan peace process.
“It’s already planned. We’ll be down in a very short period of time to 8,000 [troops], then we're going to be down to 4,000, we're negotiating right now. We have been there for 19 years,” Trump told the media outlet. The U.S. president declined to specify the exact time but said that it would happen "very soon.”
When asked how many American troops will be in Afghanistan on U.S. election day in November, Trump said it would be “probably, anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000.”
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, the U.S. president also stressed "We're leaving Afghanistan fairly shortly."
The U.S military began a gradual drawdown soon after the Trump administration sealed a peace pact with the Taliban insurgency in February to close the 19-year-old Afghan war, America’s longest.
The United States has since reduced the number of its troops to 8,600 from around 13,000 and vacated five Afghan military bases.
The deal called for all American and allied troops to leave Afghanistan by July 2021 in return for assurances that the Islamist insurgency would prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for transnational terrorists.
U.S. officials say the agreement also binds the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement with rival Afghan groups to end decades of hostilities in the conflict-torn country.
The proposed intra-Afghan peace dialogue, however, is tied to the release of 5,000 Taliban prison inmates under a protracted prisoner swap between the insurgent group and the Afghan government, which was not part of the U.S.-negotiated pact.
The Taliban has completed its part of the prisoner exchange and freed 1,000 Afghan security personnel from its custody.
But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to release a last set of about 400 insurgent prisoners for their involvement in “serious” crimes, including killing innocent Afghans. Ghani has announced he would convene a consultative Loya Jirga, the traditional assembly of Afghan elders and lawmakers, to determine the fate of the remaining Taliban prisoners. The Afghan leader defended his move, saying the constitution does not allow him to free the detainees.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said that in Monday’s video meeting with Pompeo, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group’s Qatar-based deputy leader, stressed that “release of the remaining prisoners is essential for the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations.”
Shaheen asserted that Pompeo also welcomed announcement of the three-day Eid cease-fire by the Taliban that ended on Sunday. The insurgent spokesman also tweeted images from the Pompeo-Baradar video meeting.
The U.S. State Department has so far not commented on Pompeo’s interaction.
Afghan officials alleged that there was no let up in insurgent attacks during the Eid festivities, saying the violence killed more than 20 civilians. The Taliban has rejected the allegations as baseless.