October 21, 2019 / 4:38 PM / 2 months ago

U.S. Defense Secretary Esper affirms 'longstanding commitment' to Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday that while the United States did not have a commitment to defend Syrian Kurdish fighters against Turkey, it does have a “longstanding commitment” to Afghan security forces.

FILE PHOTO: Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meets with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 20, 2019. Picture taken October 20, 2019. Afghan Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Esper’s comments came even as a top general said nearly 2,000 American troops had been pulled out of the country over the past year.

“We had no obligation, if you will, to defend the Kurds against a longstanding NATO ally,” Esper told reporters in Kabul.

“We have a longstanding commitment to our Afghan partners, we’ve invested billions upon billions of dollars, both the Afghan people and the American people have sacrificed treasure and the lives of their soldiers,” he told a news conference.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision earlier this month to withdraw all 1,000 American troops from northern Syria has been criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of loyal Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. forces against Islamic State.

But Esper, standing next to his Afghan counterpart, said the Syria withdrawal should not be compared to Afghanistan, where the situation was “very, very different.”

U.S. troops were removed from northeast Syria because they were potentially at risk from a Turkish incursion into the region, he said.

Speaking at the same news conference as Esper, General Scott Miller, who commands U.S. forces and the NATO-led non-combat Resolution Support mission in Afghanistan, confirmed a quiet drawdown as part of the so-called “optimization” of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“Unbeknownst to the public, as part of our optimization, over the last year we have reduced our authorized strength by 2,000,” Miller said.

The United States military had been authorized to have about roughly 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, but U.S. officials have long expected that number to go down under Miller. The Pentagon has said it can go down to 8,600 troops and still carry out a counter-terrorism mission. 

Last month, Trump halted talks with the Taliban aimed at striking a deal for U.S. and other foreign troops to withdraw in exchange for Taliban security guarantees, after it carried out a bomb attack in Kabul that killed 12 people, including a U.S. soldier.

The United States says it has increased the pace of operations against militants in Afghanistan since Trump walked away from talks with the Taliban.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Tom Brown

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