US Withdrawal Plan from Afghanistan Won't Include SOF Strike Units

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U.S. Special Forces soldiers, assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, prepare to leave after an operation with Afghan National Army commandos in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, March 24, 2014. (U.S. Army/Pfc. David Devich)
U.S. Special Forces soldiers, assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan, prepare to leave after an operation with Afghan National Army commandos in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, March 24, 2014. (U.S. Army/Pfc. David Devich)

The Pentagon is planning to cut its force size in Afghanistan by half, but special operations strike units will remain in country to carry out raids on Taliban and Islamic State fighters, a Defense Department official with knowledge of the withdrawal plans said Wednesday.

Press reports of a decision by President Donald Trump to begin removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan began emerging in late December, shortly after the White House declared victory over ISIS fighters in Syria and ordered that American troops be pulled from that war-torn country.

U.S. military leaders since have downplayed the reports of an Afghanistan departure as rumors. Following a Dec. 23 meeting with the governor of Nangarhar district, Gen. Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told Afghanistan's TOLOnews agency, "I have seen the same rumors you have from the newspapers [on withdrawals], but all I would assure you is, first of all, I have no orders, so nothing changed. But if I do get orders, I think it is important for you to know that we are still with the security forces. Even if I have to get a little bit smaller, we will be OK."

On Jan. 2, U.S. military officials remained reluctant to discuss withdrawal plans from Afghanistan, but a source familiar with the strategy told Military.com that Miller plans to pull about 7,000 of the estimated 14,000 U.S. troops out of the country over the next eight to 12 months.

Currently, the bulk of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is dedicated to advising and training Afghan security forces to be able to operate without American assistance, but the fledgling force remains inexperienced in complex warfighting skills, such as combat aviation, combined arms operations and logistical support, military officials say.

The direct-action portion of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan -- made up of a small contingent of U.S. Special Operations Forces, such as units from the Army's 75th Ranger Regiment; 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, known as Delta Force; and the Navy's Special Warfare Development Group, or SEAL Team Six -- will continue to carry out strike missions against enemy positions in the country, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak to the press.

"We will have a strike force in country," the source told Military.com.

U.S. military officials maintain that the Pentagon has received no official orders or guidance on withdrawal plans, despite reports Trump wants a plan to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan by half.

"Nothing has changed," said Lt. Col. Koné Faulkner, a Pentagon spokesman, on Wednesday. "As peace talks with the Taliban continue, we are considering all options of force numbers and disposition."

While not confirming plans for withdrawal, Miller said Tuesday at an event in Kabul that a major policy review is underway on the overall U.S. objective of driving the Taliban to a peace agreement with the Afghan government.

"The policy review is going on in multiple capitals, peace talks [are] out there, regional players pressing for peace, the Taliban talking about peace, the Afghan government talking about peace," Miller said, according to TOLOnews.

The Taliban has thus far refused to meet with Kabul representatives while they continue to maintain contact with U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

Currently, there are about 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan serving in both the U.S. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and NATO's Resolute Support mission. About 8,000 coalition nation troops are also part of Resolute Support, for a total of about 22,000 U.S., NATO and partner nation troops in Afghanistan, according to NATO and the Pentagon Inspector General’s office.

At the height of the U.S. and NATO commitment to Afghanistan in 2012, there were about 130,000 troops in Afghanistan from the U.S., NATO and other coalition countries.

Despite the continued U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents control nearly half the country and are more powerful now than they have been at any time since a 2001 U.S.-led invasion, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The 17-year conflict has cost the U.S. about $900 billion and resulted in more than 2,400 American deaths.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to show there are currently about 22,000 U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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