On Tuesday, a US official said that the Pentagon has begun planning for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan by the Spring of 2021, although the order to begin that withdrawal has not been given.
“I’d like to make it clear that [Secretary of Defense Mark Esper] has not issued orders to reduce military personnel below this 4,000 to 5,000 level in Afghanistan, although we are conducting prudent planning to withdraw to zero service members by May 2021 if conditions warrant, per the US-Taliban agreement,” David Helvey, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said during a Congressional hearing.
The US is expected to bring troop levels in Afghanistan down to 4,500 by the November presidential election. The US-Taliban peace deal signed in February paved the way for this drawdown.
The Taliban and the Afghan government are currently engaged in talks in Doha, but the warring parties remain far apart on certain issues, and recent days have seen a significant spike in violence in Afghanistan.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy for the Afghan peace process, also spoke at the Congressional hearing on Tuesday. Khalilzad said the current levels of violence in Afghanistan are unacceptably high, and that he expects further setbacks in the peace talks.
When it comes to troop withdrawal, Khalilzad said they would reevaluate when levels reach 4,500 to see if the Taliban have taken more steps to prevent terrorists from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.
“We look for more steps before we are satisfied, and I believe that once we reach 4,500, we’d do an evaluation of ties and actions that they have taken and make decisions based on that,” the envoy said.