President Donald Trump said he expects U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan to be under 5,000 by Election Day in November and called America’s involvement in the Middle East “the single biggest mistake in the history of our country” in an interview with Axios released Monday night.
U.S. military forces have already dropped by more than 3,000 personnel this year, bringing the American military footprint to about 8,500 troops, around the same level as when Trump took office in 2017.
When pressed if that force level represented a real change in strategy in the region — where U.S. forces have been deployed for nearly 19 years — Trump said that he expected the troop levels to drop by half “very soon.”
“We’re going down to 4,000, we’re negotiating right now,” Trump said. “I don’t want to tell you (when). But I’ve always said we will get largely out.”
When asked what the levels would be on Election Day in November, Trump said he expected “between 4,000 and 5,000″ troops there.
Military leaders and numerous members of Congress have cautioned against too quick of a withdrawal from the region, saying it could destabilize Afghan security forces currently receiving support and logistical help from U.S. service members.
Last month, House lawmakers in a bipartisan vote approved limits on the administration’s power to reduce the U.S. troops numbers in Afghanistan below 8,000 without meeting clear security benchmarks first. That measure still must be approved by the Senate.
Critics of the ongoing war have countered that the United States has remained in the region well past any useful mission, and that Trump should not leave American troops there indefinitely.
Trump has alternated between the two sides, repeatedly pledging to end U.S. involvement in the war but also agreeing to military plus-ups in the region during the course of his presidency. As many as 14,000 U.S. troops have been deployed to the region in recent years, after former President Obama reduced that force size to under 9,000 by the end of his term.
In the Axios interview, Trump brushed off assertions that he hasn’t done enough to end the war in Afghanistan, saying that his administration has been tougher on terrorist groups than any other.
“We took out ISIS in Syria,” he said. “When I took over, it was totally rampant, ISIS was all over the place. We took them out, we captured them, we killed them …
“I’ve done things that no other president has done. We should have never been in the Middle East. To get into the Middle East was the single biggest mistake made in the history of our country.”
The interview took place on July 28 but was released in full Monday night. Last week, Axios made public parts of the interview where Trump acknowledged that he had not pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin on intelligence reports that Russian officials had offered bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, saying he did not find them credible.
“We did not discuss (the bounties issue),” Trump said. “It never reached my desk, because intelligence (officials) didn’t think it was real. If it had reached my desk, I would have done something about it.”
The full interview is available on the Axios website.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.