Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the U.S. is ahead of schedule for an initial drawdown by July to 8,600 troops. Another U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss details and so spoke on condition of anonymity, said troop levels are now below 9,000, compared with about 12,000 in February.
McKenzie stressed, however, that going to zero troops by May is dependent on conditions. "Those conditions would be: Can we be assured that attacks against us will not be generated there? And as of right now ... frankly, if asked my opinion, those conditions have not been fully met,” he said in a video conference hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington. McKenzie spoke from his headquarters in Florida.
McKenzie's skepticism comes as President Donald Trump focuses on an early troop exit that would fulfill his frequent promise to get the United States out of Afghanistan. Trump has said U.S. troops are acting as police in Afghanistan and should get out of a conflict that is now almost two decades old.
In late May, Trump called for a quick return of American soldiers and urged Afghan forces to step up in the defense of their country. He tweeted: “Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!”
Trump has often complained about the enormous cost of the war, which began in October 2001 with a U.S. invasion to topple the Taliban from power. The president's impatience, and speculation that he may order that all U.S. troops leave by the November election, has caused some angst on Capitol Hill.
Four members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including the panel's vice chairman, Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, wrote Tuesday to the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, asking that he provide an update on intelligence planning for Afghanistan if a decision is made to pull out by November.
“A rushed and premature withdrawal would also risk losing the gains we have achieved in Afghanistan, not only in counterterrorism but also in building Afghan governance and military forces,” they wrote. “Our nation’s intelligence professionals have spent nearly two decades establishing security arrangements with our Afghan partners. Now it is incumbent upon our government to give them the time and space to prepare for an orderly, conditions-based drawdown, in conjunction with military and diplomatic counterparts.”
The Taliban had provided sanctuary for al-Qaida, which used Afghanistan as a base for plotting the 9/11 attacks. “The threat to the United States is not the Taliban. It has never been the Taliban,” McKenzie said. “It's the entities that they allow to live in Afghanistan that threaten us.” He mentioned the Islamic State group's Afghan affiliate and al-Qaida.
“We believe the Taliban actually are no friends of ISIS and work against them,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group. “It is less clear to me that they will take the same action against al-Qaida.”
McKenzie said the Trump administration is engaged in “very robust dialogue” internally and with NATO and coalition partners “as we evaluate the way forward” in Afghanistan. — Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.