President Donald Trump said the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan will resume soon, with the goal of reducing the current number of about 8,600 U.S. troops in the country to as low as 4,000 before the Nov. 3 elections.
In an interview with Axios political reporter Jonathan Swan that was filmed July 28 and aired Monday on HBO, Trump was asked, "On election day, how many troops will be in Afghanistan?"
He responded: "Probably anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000."
Trump declined to state when the next round of withdrawals will begin but said it would happen "very soon, very soon," in line with his overall commitment to an eventual end to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Previous released segments of the interview centered on Trump's denials of being aware of U.S. intelligence suggesting that Russia may have paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops.
He said the intelligence never reached his desk; Pentagon officials have stated that the intel was not corroborated.
In the Axios interview, Trump pivoted off questions about Russia to state, "By the way, we're largely out of Afghanistan, as you probably know. We'll be down in a very short period of time to 8,000; then we're going to be down to 4,000."
He added, "We're negotiating right now" on the withdrawal schedule and once again expressed his frustration at the duration of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.
"We've been there for 19 years --19 years. We'll be getting out," he said.
In the interview, Trump initially appeared to dispute that the number of U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan -- about 8,600, according to the Pentagon -- is "roughly the same" as it was when President Barack Obama left office.
"Well, you're wrong, no," he told Swan.
Swan reposed the question: "When you came in, it was 8,800. You boosted it to 14,000, and now you're back down to 8,500."
He was referring to the troop increase that Trump announced in an address to the nation in August 2017 at the urging of Army Gen. John Nicholson, then-commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Trump said at the time that he was approving the troop increase reluctantly. "My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like to follow my instincts," he said in his address.
The president did not respond directly to the question on troop levels being the same as they were when Obama left office, and instead began talking of his intention to reduce them to as low as 4,000 by Election Day.
Under an agreement with the Taliban, worked out in negotiations in Qatar in February, the U.S. committed to reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan to about 8,600 by July and a full withdrawal by May 2021, depending on a range of conditions.
The Taliban must negotiate peace with the Kabul government, commit to acting against terrorist groups, and work out arrangements on prisoner releases, according to the conditions as stated by U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad.
In a July 14 meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said any withdrawal of U.S. troops would be "conditions based" and depend upon the Taliban living up to their promises.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.