Esper: U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan will be 'long, windy, bumpy road'

By Justin Doubleday / March 2, 2020 at 3:21 PM

Defense Secretary Mark Esper today tempered expectations for a smooth ending to the U.S. military's 18-year conflict in Afghanistan after the United States and the Taliban reached a historic peace agreement over the weekend.

The agreement signed on Saturday commits the United States and its coalition partners to withdrawing all military forces from Afghanistan within 14 months. In the near-term, Washington and its allies agreed to reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days, among other commitments.

In return, the Taliban agreed to ensure its members and international terrorist groups cannot use Afghanistan as a springboard for attacks against the United States and its allies.

However, the Afghan government is already objecting to parts of the accord, including an agreement for prisoner swaps, while the Taliban announced the end of a partial truce today amid reports of a motorcycle bomb attack in Eastern Afghanistan.

During a press briefing at the Pentagon today, Esper was asked about the reported attack.

"We'll make sure we understand the attribution, the extent of the attack, and it's going to be a constant engagement," Esper said. "This is going to be a long, windy, bumpy road. There will be ups and downs, and we'll stop and start. That's going to be the nature of this over the days, weeks and months. So I'm not going to get too excited about what happens in the moment."

Esper said the Defense Department has to "deal with each situation as it arises" and "stay focused on the mission" to deny terrorist groups safe haven in Afghanistan.

"The mission here, again No. 1 is to make sure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists to attack this country," Esper said. "And then number two, support our Afghan partners in the process, and then number three, again as we can, bring our troops home, withdraw our presence in the country."

Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley are scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.