Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed Tuesday that the U.S. was actively considering a drawdown of about 4,000 of the estimated 13,000 troops in Afghanistan -- "with or without" a political agreement with the Taliban on a ceasefire to their constant deadly attacks.
Esper said a decision on a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be made "in the coming weeks." It had the backing, he said, of Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, commander of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. He also said the troops being withdrawn could be repositioned to the Pacific in an effort to contain China.
"So [Miller's] confident that he can go down to a lower number," Esper said.
Miller was in Washington last week to brief members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed session.
"I have issued no orders yet to [draw down troops]," Esper said to reporters traveling with him Monday. A transcript of the briefing was posted on the Pentagon's website Tuesday.
"We'll just take this a day at a time and see how things play out in the coming weeks," he added. "We want to consult closer with our allies, but at the end of the day it will be the commander in chief's decision."
Esper told reporters he had been thinking of a drawdown "for quite some time now" as the U.S. focuses on peace negotiations with the Taliban led by special U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. He made similar comments last week in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.
"I would like to go down to a lower number because I want to either bring those troops home," he said, or have them "redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the great power competition -- that's vis-a-vis China."
President Donald Trump has acknowledged his reluctance in agreeing to the recommendations of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to boost the number of troops in Afghanistan from the 8,600 that were there when President Barack Obama left office.
He also has repeatedly questioned the worth of the mission. In August, he said the U.S. was "not really fighting" in the 18th year of war in Afghanistan.
"We're almost a police force over there. We're not supposed to be a police force," he said.
In a surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops at Bagram air base north of Kabul, Trump said he was considering reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan "very substantially."
In a visit to Kabul Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, a close ally of the president, said he could support a drawdown of U.S. troop strength to 8,600, the same number in Afghanistan at the end of the Obama administration.
In a news conference at the headquarters of the NATO Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, Graham said a drawdown would be enabled by what he saw as the increasing capabilities of the Afghan security forces, which have been struggling against the near-daily attacks of the Taliban and the ISIS offshoot known as ISIS-K, or Islamic State-Khorasan Province.
"As they achieve capability, the number of U.S. forces necessary can go down," Graham said.
Khalilzad last met with representatives of the Taliban on Dec. 12 in the Gulf state of Qatar. He sent out a tweet later that day saying he had he "expressed outrage" to the Taliban representatives at an attack last week on a medical facility near Bagram that killed at least two and wounded dozens.
The Taliban, which has refused thus far to negotiate with the Kabul government, "must show they are willing [and] able to respond to Afghan desire for peace," Khalilzad said.
On Tuesday, Afghanistan's Tolo News reported that 10 civilians were killed when a roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle in Khost province.
In a report Tuesday, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said that 631 children were killed and another 1,830 wounded in attacks in the first nine month of 2019. The report said the figures on children marked an 11% increase over the same period in 2018.
"Even by Afghanistan's grim standards, 2019 has been particularly deadly for children," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said in a statement.
Esper said the peace negotiations offered the only path forward but would not delay a withdrawal.
"I think, again, today the best solution for Afghanistan is a political agreement, but I think we could go down to a lower number with or without that political agreement," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.