Pentagon sees Taliban deal as allowing fuller focus on China

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration's peace deal with the Taliban opens the door for an initial American troop withdrawal that Defense Secretary Mark Esper sees as a step toward the broader goal of preparing for potential future war with China.

Esper has his eye on “great power competition,” which means staying a step ahead of China and Russia on battlefields of the future, including in space and in next-generation strategic weapons like hypersonic missiles and advanced nuclear weapons. He sees China in particular as a rising threat to American predominance on the world stage.

To do more to prepare for the China challenge, Esper wants to do less in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places. It's less about moving troops directly to Asia from elsewhere in the world, and more about reducing commitments in lower-priority regions so that more military units can train together at home on skills related to conventional warfare. Predecessors in the Pentagon have had similar hopes, only to be drawn back to crises in the greater Middle East. In the past year alone, the U.S. has sent an extra 20,000 troops to the Middle East, mainly due to worries about Iran.

With President Donald Trump's emphasis on ending America's wars against extremists and insurgents, including in Afghanistan, Esper wants to bring home as many troops as he thinks he prudently can so they can prepare for “high end” warfare.

Stephen Biddle, a policy analyst and a Columbia University professor of international and public affairs, is skeptical that the Pentagon will be able to fully shift away from Afghanistan and other regional hot spots like Iraq, recalling that the Obama administration tried the same thing — also with China's rise in mind — in the 2011-2014 period.

“The trouble was the Islamic State burst onto the scene,” in Iraq and Syria, Biddle said in an interview, and “lo and behold it was right back to a focus on the Middle East and small wars."

Related: U.S. troops in Afghanistan

27 PHOTOS
U.S. troops in Afghanistan
See Gallery
U.S. troops in Afghanistan
An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Branden Tyme Kimball, early Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Kimball, 21, of Central Point, Ore., died at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Branden Tyme Kimball, early Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Kimball, 21, of Central Point, Ore., died at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
From left, General Counsel of the Army James McPherson, President Donald Trump, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville, Vice President Mike Pence, Sgt. Maj. Michael Grinston and Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist stand during the casualty return of Sgt. 1st Class Javier J. Gutierrez and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Gutierrez, 28, of San Antonio, and Rodriguez, 28, of Las Cruces, N.M., died in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained during combat operations. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
An Army carry team marches away from transfer cases containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez, left case, and Sgt. 1st Class Javier Jaguar Gutierrez, right case, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Rodriguez, 28, of Las Cruces, N.M., and Gutierrez, 28, of San Antonio, died in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, of wounds sustained during combat operations. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence watches as a U.S. Army carry team salutes the transfer case's containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Javier Gutierrez, of San Antonio, Texasa and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rodriguez, of Las Cruces, N.M., Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense both died Saturday, Feb. 8, during combat in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
This image provided by the U.S. Army Special Operations Command shows Sgt. 1st Class Antonio R. Rodriguez, 28, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, who died Feb. 8, 2020 from wounds sustained during combat operations in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. (US Army Special Operations Command via AP)
In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, fallen Air Force Capt. Ryan Phaneuf, 30, of Hudson, N.H., is seated in an aircraft. The Pentagon on Wednesday, Jan. 29, released the names of two Air Force officers killed in the Monday, Jan. 27, 2020 crash of their Bombardier E-11A electronic surveillance plane, in Ghazni Province, in eastern Afghanistan. An American official added that there were no indications so far the plane had been brought down by enemy fire. (U.S. Air Force Photo via AP)
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, center, walks Gen. Scott Miller, right, chief of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, at the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019. Esper arrived Sunday in Afghanistan, where stalled peace talks with the Taliban and persistent violent attacks by the insurgent group and Islamic State militants have complicated the Trump administration’s pledge to withdraw more than 5,000 American troops. He told reporters traveling with him that he believes the U.S. can reduce its force in Afghanistan without hurting the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Lolita C. Balbor)
This August, 2019 photo provided by the Nevada Army National Guard shows Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hopper of the Nevada Army National Guard at a deployment ceremony in Nevada. Hopper, who is serving in Afghanistan, has received a uniform religious exception to sport a beard based upon his Norse pagan beliefs. He is the first guard soldier to receive a religious accommodation approval for a beard. (Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka/Nevada Army National Guard via AP)
An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz, 34, from Morovis, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Ortiz was killed in action Sept. 5, when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ortiz was supporting Operation Freedom's Sentinel. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Resolute Support (RS) forces guard at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. The Afghan government says at least 10 civilians are dead and another 42 wounded after a Taliban suicide car bombing rocked the Afghan capital near a neighborhood housing the U.S. Embassy and the NATO Resolute Support mission. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Resolute Support (RS) forces arrive at the site of a car bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. A car bomb rocked the Afghan capital on Thursday and smoke rose from a part of eastern Kabul near a neighborhood housing the U.S. Embassy, the NATO Resolute Support mission and other diplomatic missions. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
In this Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, photo, An Afghan man reads a local newspaper about peace in Kabul, Afghanistan. For almost a year, Afghanistan’s more than 30 million people have been in the awkward position of waiting as a United States envoy and the Taliban negotiate their country’s fate behind closed doors. An agreement on ending America’s longest war, which the U.S. once hoped to reach by Sunday, Sept. 1, not only could set a timeline for U.S. troops’ withdrawal but also nudge aside this month’s presidential election and open the way for a Taliban return to power. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
An Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Army Master Sgt. Jose Gonzalez, 35, of La Puente, Calif., past Vice President Mike Pence, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Gonzalez died as a result of wounds sustained from small arms fire while engaged in combat operations in Faryab Province, Afghanistan, while supporting Operation Freedom's Sentinel. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense shows Master Sgt. Luis F. Deleon-Figueroa. Master Sgt. Luis F. Deleon-Figueroa, 31, and Master Sgt. Jose J. Gonzalez, 35, died as a result of small arms fire in northern Faryab Province. Both were members of 7th Special Forces Group, which is based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The deaths came as United States envoy Zalmay Khalilzad resumed negotiations with the Taliban Thursday aimed at ending America's longest war. (U.S. Department of Defense via AP)
Shawn Gregoire, second from right, mother of U.S. Army Spc. Michael Nance, along with his brother and father, far left, and others watch as a U.S. Army carry team moves the transfer case containing the remains of Nance during a dignified transfer at Chicago Midway International Airport, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, in Chicago. Nance died July 29 of wounds sustained in a combat-related incident in Tarin Kowt, in southern Afghanistan. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)
This January 2002 photo provided by the Alexandria Sheriff's Office in Alexandria, Va. shows John Walker Lindh. Lindh, the young Californian who became known as the American Taliban after he was captured by U.S. forces in the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, is set to go free Thursday, May 23, 2019, after nearly two decades in prison. (Alexandria Sheriff's Office via AP)
A U.S. Marine Corps carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Staff Sgt. Christopher A. Slutman, Thursday, April 11, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Slutman, of Newark, Del., was among three American service members killed by a roadside bomb on Monday, April 8, 2019, near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Afghans watch a civilian vehicle burnt after being shot by US forces following an attack near the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Three American service members and a U.S. contractor were killed when their convoy hit a roadside bomb on Monday near the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, the U.S. forces said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
An Afghan security force hold bullet shell a day after an attack near the Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. Three American service members and a U.S. contractor were killed when their convoy hit a roadside bomb on Monday near the main U.S. base in Afghanistan, the U.S. forces said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
Vice President Mike Pence stands at attention as a U.S. Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Joseph P. Collette, Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Collette, of Lancaster, Ohio, was killed March 22 while involved in combat operations in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A U.S. Army carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Spc. Joseph P. Collette, Sunday, March 24, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. According to the Department of Defense, Collette, of Lancaster, Ohio, was killed March 22 while involved in combat operations in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, left, arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday morning, Feb. 11, 2019, to consult with Army Gen. Scott Miller, right, commander of U.S. and coalition forces, and senior Afghan government leaders. The unannounced visit is the first for the acting secretary of defense, Pat Shanahan. He previously was the No. 2 official under Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense chief in December. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
This undated image provided by the U.S. Army shows Sgt. 1st Class Elliott J. Robbins, who died Sunday, June, 30, 2019, of non-combat injuries in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. Robbins, 31, from Ogden, Utah, and was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group. (U.S. Army via AP)
From left, Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox, Maj. Gen. Jefferson S. Burton, Civilian Aid to the Secretary of the Army John Edwards, and Brig. Gen. Christine Burckle salute as members of the Utah National Guard Honor Guard carry a casket containing the remains of Maj. Brent R. Taylor at at the National Guard base Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. in Salt Lake City. The remains of a Utah mayor killed while serving in the National Guard in Afghanistan were returned to his home state on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, as hundreds of soldiers saluted while his casket covered in an American flag was carried across a tarmac and into a hearse. (Matt Herp/Standard-Examiner, via, Pool)
In this September 2, 2018 photo, provided by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, delivers remarks during the Resolute Support mission change of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan officials said Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018 that three top Kandahar province officials have been killed by their own guards in an attack at a security meeting that also wounded two U.S. troops. A Taliban spokesman who claimed responsibility for the attack tells The Associated Press that Miller, was the target. NATO officials say Miller escaped unharmed. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson, via AP)
A U.S. Army soldier sings a song during the change of command ceremony at Resolute Support headquarters, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018. U.S. Army Gen. Austin Miller has assumed command of the 41-nation NATO mission in Afghanistan following a handover ceremony. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

In remarks Saturday in Kabul, Esper kept the focus on prospects for a complete U.S. withdrawal, while cautioning that the United States “will not hesitate” to strike what he called terrorist threats in Afghanistan if the Taliban falters in its promise to prevent extremist groups to use Afghan soil to launch attacks on the homelands of the U.S. or its allies.

“We still have a long way to go,” Esper said.

Reducing U.S. troops levels in Afghanistan to zero is “our ultimate objective,” he said, but added that it will take “many months."

Late last year, Esper said he would be willing to reduce troop levels even if no deal could be made with the Taliban.

“I would like to do that because what I want to do is reallocate forces to” the Asia-Pacific region, he said at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in December. He said he wants to do the same thing in the Mideast, Africa and Europe.

“All of these places where I can free up troops where I could either bring them home to allow them to rest and refit and retrain or/and then reallocate them (to the Asia-Pacific region) to compete with the Chinese, to reassure our allies, to conduct exercises and training,” he said.

The Pentagon has not publicly spelled out a precise timetable for troop reductions in Afghanistan, but Esper has said the peace deal signed Saturday in Doha, Qatar by American officials and Taliban representatives triggers the start of a drawdown from the current total of nearly 13,000 to about 8,600, similar to the number Trump inherited when he entered the White House three years ago. The reduction won't happen immediately; it will be carried out over a period of several months and could be slowed, stopped or even reversed if peace prospects turn sour.

“The whole thing is dependent upon conditions and dependent upon Taliban behavior,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told a House committee on Wednesday.

A U.S. withdrawal, while conditioned on Taliban compliance, raises questions not just about the country's stability but also the prospects for continuing to combat non-Taliban extremists such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. Some in Congress, including Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, are pressing Pentagon officials for assurances that they will not cooperate or coordinate with the Taliban as a counterterror partner.

It would be “lunacy,” Cheney said Wednesday, to trust the Taliban, which was running Afghanistan and harboring al-Qaida when U.S. forces invaded in October 2001. As part of the negotiated deal with Washington, the Taliban promised not to let al-Qaida use the country as a staging ground for attacking the United States or its allies.

If the peace process succeeds and the U.S. ends up withdrawing entirely, it might opt for an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism force. In that case, U.S. special operations troops would be stationed in one or more nearby countries such as Uzbekistan and slip in and out of Afghanistan when necessary to monitor or to attack al-Qaida or IS fighters.

It was the Taliban's close association with al-Qaida, after the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, that prompted President George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan a month later.

U.S. force levels in Afghanistan ebbed and flowed over the years. Early on, the Americans hoped that a small force could keep a lid on al-Qaida and train an Afghan army. But from about 2,500 troops at the end of 2001, the force jumped to about 22,000 five years later. President Barack Obama ballooned the number from about 34,000 at the start of his first term to 100,000. By the time he left the White House the number had dropped to 8,400.

Trump entered office in January 2017 with no appetite for continuing the Afghan stalemate. He was persuaded, nonetheless, in August 2017 to add several thousand troops as part of what he called a new strategy for the region. That included designating Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, to lead negotiations with the Taliban that eventually produced Saturday's deal and a chance for the United States to move beyond Afghanistan.

Read Full Story