Esper says US troop presence in Afghanistan will be ‘less than 5,000’ by November

Thousands more U.S. troops are poised to leave Afghanistan in the coming months, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed over the weekend.

In an interview with Fox News, Esper said that “we’re going down to a number less than 5,000 by the end of November.”

Esper’s comments came after President Trump first told Axios in an interview that aired last week that there would “probably” be 4,000 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan by Election Day.

There are about 8,600 troops in Afghanistan right now, in line with the agreement the Trump administration struck with the Taliban earlier this year.

U.S. military officials have previously said any further drawdowns would be “conditions-based,” a phrase Esper repeated in the Fox interview, though Taliban attacks against Afghan forces remain high.

“But right now, we think that we can do all the core missions, first and foremost being ensure the United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of Afghanistan,” Esper said. “We can do those at a lower level.”

Progress on intra-Afghan talks: The U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement was meant to proceed talks between the Taliban and Afghan government to end the war.

Now, months after those talks were first expected to begin, they appear to actually be on the precipice of happening after the Afghan government agreed to complete a prisoner swap.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani agreed Sunday to release the final 400 Taliban prisoners as recommended by an assembly known as the Loya Jirga.

The intra-Afghan talks are now expected to start in day in Doha, Qatar.

“With these bold steps, after 40 years of war, a historic opportunity for peace is now possible; one that benefits all Afghans and contributes to regional stability and global security,” U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted about Ghani’s announcement.

“In the next few days, we expect the completion of prisoner releases, then travel of the Islamic Republic team to Doha, & from there the immediate start of intra-Afghan negotiations,” Khalilzad added.

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