Despite continued violence in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump has said the U.S. military will draw down to between 4,000 and 5,000 troops in the country by November.
“We’ll be down now in a very short period of time to 8,000; then we’re going to be down to 4,000,” Trump told Axios reporter Jonathan Swan in a recent interview. “We’re negotiating right now. We’ve been there for 19 years – 19 years.”
Trump said the drawdown to 4,000 troops in Afghanistan would be accomplished “very soon” but declined to say exactly when.
When Swan asked how many U.S. troops are expected to be in Afghanistan by the time of the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3, Trump replied: “Probably anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000.”
The president did not answer when Swan asked if he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
A Pentagon spokesman told Task & Purpose that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan remains conditions-based.
But Trump’s comments to Axios could indicate that he is determined to continue bringing troops home despite the horrific violence that has engulfed Afghanistan in recent months.
The U.S. military already reduced the number of troops in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to somewhere in the “mid-8,000s” per a Feb. 29 agreement with the Taliban, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a July 14 statement.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has repeatedly said the Taliban need to live up to their alleged commitments to reduce violence before the U.S. would draw down any further.
That has not happened. In fact, the Taliban have ramped up attacks on Afghan troops and police, so far that a recent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report characterized a single week this past June as “deadliest [week] of the past 19 years" of conflict there.
Both Afghan and western officials described the level in violence in the country over the past three months as “unacceptable,” according to the latest SIGAR report, which was published on July 30.
“We expected to see a reduction in violence,” Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., head of U.S. Central Command, said during a July 15 interview with Voice of America reporter Carla Babb. “And while the Taliban have been scrupulous about not attacking U.S. or coalition forces, in fact, the violence against the Afghans is higher than it's been in quite a while. It’s one of the highest, most violent periods of the war that we see to date.”
Read the exchange between President Donald Trump and Axios reporter Jonathan Swan below. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
TRUMP: By the way, we’re largely out of Afghanistan, as you probably know.
SWAN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. The U.S. troop level in Afghanistan right now is roughly the same as it was when you ….
TRUMP: No. You’re wrong.
SWAN: Mr. President, I’m sorry, we have to do ….
TRUMP: OK. Are you ready?
SWAN: No, no.
TRUMP: We’ll be down in a very short – it’s already planned.
SWAN: That’s a different question ….
TRUMP: Let me explain: We’ll be down in a very short period of time to 8,000; then we’re going to be down to 4,000. We’re negotiating right now. We’ve been there for 19 years – 19 years.
SWAN: I know. If you just let me finish my question … When you came in, it was 8,800. You boosted to 14,000 and now you’re back down 8,500 …
TRUMP: We’re now ….
SWAN: My question to you ….
TRUMP: We’ll be at 4,000. I’ll give you the exact ….
TRUMP: Very soon. Very soon.
SWAN: What will be the number – very soon? 4,000?
TRUMP: Very soon. Yes.
SWAN: Like how soon?
TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you that. I don’t want to tell you that.
SWAN: It’s big news.
TRUMP: What? [INAUDIBLE] No.
SWAN: Going down to 4,000.
TRUMP: I’ve always said …
SWAN: What about election day?
TRUMP: We will get largely out ….
SWAN: On election day, how many American troops will be in Afghanistan?
TRUMP: Ah, probably anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000.
SWAN: That’s almost as many as when came into office.
TRUMP: No it’s not.
TRUMP: We had much more. We had a lot of people over there too.
TRUMP: A lot of people. And we did a good job. We wiped out ISIS.
SWAN: Have you thought about going down to zero?
TRUMP: Let’s me just tell you. What you don’t say. We took out in Syria. We took out ISIS – 100 % of the caliphate.
When I took over, Obama, it was totally rampant. ISIS was all over the place. We took them out. We captured them. We killed them. One hundred percent – not 99%. I wanted to get out at 99. Everyone said: ‘Oh please, would you stay?’
I stayed. Ninety-nine percent was good, but 100 % of the caliphate.
We took out Soleimani. We took out al-Baghdadi. We took out people that nobody thought possible. Al-Baghdadi was the biggest terrorist of them all. They couldn’t find him. I took him out. Soleimani: Even bigger. I took him out.
I’ve done things that no other president has done – I mean; fortunately, not too many. They should have never been in the Middle East. The decision to go to the Middle East and get into the Middle East was the single biggest mistake made in the history of our country. That’s my opinion.