U.S. troop levels have fallen nearly 20 percent in Afghanistan, from 66,000 in April down to about 54,500 in late September, Pentagon data show. Pictured: Army Spc. Kevin Jackson pulls security during a reconnaissance mission in a village south of Forward Operating Base Fenty, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 8. (Sgt. Margaret Taylor / Army)
The Pentagon has quietly removed nearly 12,000 troops from Afghanistan during the past several months, scaling back the military’s combat power before the end of the fighting season.
U.S. troop levels have fallen nearly 20 percent, from 66,000 in April down to about 54,500 in late September, Pentagon data show.
Meanwhile, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are slowing. In August, the U.S. military conducted 158 close-air support missions that dropped weapons, less than half of the 368 sorties that released weapons in May, according to Air Force numbers.
Military officials say the drawdown is part of a gradual reduction to meet President Obama’s target for getting troop levels down to less than 34,000 by February.
It also signals a fundamental shift in the U.S. mission there from directly fighting the Taliban insurgency to supporting the Afghan troops who now plan and conduct combat missions independently.
“We are getting smaller because, one, the president told us to and because, two, the requirements of the mission have changed based on the Afghan National Security Forces being in the lead for security across the country,” said Army Col. Christopher Garver, a military spokesman in Afghanistan, in an email to Military Times.
This fall, the U.S. commanders in Afghanistan will remove all U.S. troops who are serving as trainers with Afghan units at the battalion level and below, leaving trainers with Afghan units only at the brigade level and above, official say.
The current mission is slated to end next year, and it remains unclear what, if any, U.S. troop presence will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
For now, about 15 percent to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s land area and population remains under control of the Taliban insurgents and its affiliate groups, according to Army Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Milley estimated the Taliban’s fighting force ranges between 10,000 and 25,000 armed combatants.
As U.S. troops have pulled back, Afghan troops have taken the lead on many missions, and their casualty rates are soaring.
Up to 100 Afghans are killed each week in combat with the Taliban, a rate that reflects in part their commitment to the fight, Milley said.
“These guys are absolutely determined to fight for their country. And they’re doing a good job at it. And, yes, they are suffering,” Milley told reporters at the Pentagon in September.
“Is it sustainable or unsustainable? I think that’s an open question. … I got to tell you, these guys are hard guys. These are tough, physically tough people and mentally tough people.”