The plan is still to bring troop levels down to 8,600 by July, Esper said, but any plan to pull out the remainder by the presidential election ― as cited in a Tuesday report by the New York Times ― does not seem likely at this point.
“It’s proven not to move as quickly as we’d prefer,” he said, when asked if it could be done in six months. “I don’t put a timeline on it. We have a timeline of May of next year but that timeline was premised on everything moving at a set pace.”
US President Donald Trump on Wednesday repeated that he wanted to bring American troops back from Afghanistan, saying the US is acting as a police force and it is time for Afghans to police their country.
“We are acting as a police force, not the fighting force that we are, in Afghanistan. After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own country. Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!” tweeted Trump.
Earlier, news agencies reported that Trump on Tuesday at a White House news conference renewed his desire for a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“We’re there 19 years and, yeah, I think that’s enough… We can always go back if we want to,” said Trump.
The troop pullout discussion references the peace deal that the US signed with the Taliban on February 29, an agreement that also set a deadline for the US troops to leave the country.
A cease-fire agreement reached between the Taliban and the Afghan government last week, which includes exchange of prisoners, has renewed some hope that the withdrawal of US troops could ramp up.
“Right now, we’re encouraged by the steps we see happening in Afghanistan,’ Esper said. “We’re seeing a greater exchange of prisoners. It looks like the Afghan government is organizing itself in a way to sometime soon begin inter-Afghan negotiations. That’ll be a good step forward.”
For now, Esper said, American troops are trying to uphold their end of the deal, including taking a break from any offensive attacks on Taliban fighters, because “our ambition is not to be the cause for that agreement breaking down,” he said.
But beyond that, he added, another troop level drop past 8,600 is very much up in the air.
The US has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to reports.