WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Sunday U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria will reposition in western Iraq, maintaining an ability to conduct anti-operations.
He also said he can forsee reducing the current 14,500 U.S. forces in Afghanistan down to 8,600 without affecting counter-terrorism operations in that nation, if conditions permit such a reduction.
Esper arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday, the start of travel in the region. He made his remarks to the small group of Pentagon reporters traveling with him, known as a pool. TMN is part of the larger pool and shares those remarks.
The Pentagon has about 5,500 troops in Iraq. The U.S withdrew the forces that were part of the 2003 invasion in 2011 but under an agreement with Iraq in 2014 returned some elements to help battle ISIS.
Esper said the Pentagon is still shaping what the next phase of the counter-ISIS will involved, other than they would be protected by U.S. airpower. “We have to work through those details,” Esper told reporters.
The Pentagon yanked its forces for Syria in the face of a Turkish invasion of the border area in a mission against the U.S. Kurdish allies. Anakara agreed to a ceasefire last week and Esper said that “generally seems to be holding. We see a stability of the lines, if you will, on the ground.”
He said he did not know who was violating the ceasefire, as reported in the media, or who has committed war crimes. “You just don’t know and so I think it’s going to take some forensics eventually to figure out who is committing these war crimes, these atrocities. And that should be a big part of any follow-up if you will, investigations,” Esper said.
Esper’s trip Esper’s trip to Afghanistan includes an effort to determine the possibility of restarting peace talks with the Taliban, President Donald Trump broke off negotiations last month seeking to end to the 18-year war.
“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, a political agreement. That is the best way forward,” Esper told Pentagon reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan.“I hope we can move forward and come up with a political agreement that meets our ends and meets the goals we want to achieve.”
–By Tom Squitieri