The Pentagon believes that the Taliban agreement allows a more complete approach in China

WASHINGTON: The Trump administration's peace agreement with the Taliban opens the door to an initial withdrawal of US troops that Defense Secretary Mark Esper sees as a step toward the broader goal of preparing for a possible future war with China.

Esper has his eye on the great power competition, which means being one step ahead of China and Russia on the battlefields of the future, even in space and next-generation strategic weapons such as hypersonic missiles and advanced nuclear weapons . He sees China in particular as a growing threat to American dominance on the world stage.

To do more to prepare for China's challenge, Esper wants to do less in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. It is less about moving troops directly to Asia from other parts of the world, and more about reducing commitments in lower priority regions so that more military units can train together at home in skills related to conventional warfare.

The predecessors in the Pentagon have had similar hopes, only to go back to crises in the great Middle East. In the last year alone, the United States sent an additional 20,000 troops to the Middle East, mainly due to concerns about Iran.

With President Donald Trump's emphasis on ending the US wars against extremists and insurgents, even in Afghanistan, Esper wants to bring home as many troops as he thinks he can wisely so they can prepare for high-level warfare.

Stephen Biddle, a policy analyst and professor of public and international affairs at Columbia University, is skeptical that the Pentagon can get away completely from Afghanistan and other regional hot spots like Iraq, and remember that the Obama administration tried the same, also taking into account the rise of China, in the period 2011-2014.

The problem was that the Islamic State broke into the scene, in Iraq and Syria, Biddle said in an interview, and here we returned to focus on the Middle East and the small wars.

Speaking on Saturday in Kabul, Esper kept the focus on the prospects of a total withdrawal from the United States, while warning that the United States will not hesitate to attack what he called terrorist threats in Afghanistan if the Taliban fail in their promise to prevent extremist groups use Afghan soil to launch attacks against US homelands. UU. or its allies.

We still have a long way to go, Esper said. Reducing US troop levels in Afghanistan to zero is our ultimate goal, he said, but added that it will take many months.

At the end of last year, Esper said he would be willing to reduce troop levels even if an agreement could not be reached with the Taliban.

I would like to do that because what I want to do is reallocate forces to the Asia-Pacific region, he said at the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum in December. He said he wants to do the same in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

All these places where I can release troops where I could take them home to allow them to rest and retrain and/or reassign them (to the Asia-Pacific region) to compete with the Chinese, to reassure our allies, to perform exercises and training , said.

The Pentagon has not publicly specified a precise schedule for troop reduction in Afghanistan, but Esper has said the peace agreement signed on Saturday in Doha, Qatar by US officials and Taliban representatives triggers the start of a current total reduction of almost 13,000 to approximately 8,600, similar to the number Trump inherited when he entered the White House three years ago.

The reduction will not happen immediately; It will take place over a period of several months and could be delayed, stopped or even reversed if the prospects for peace become difficult.

It all depends on Taliban conditions and behavior, General Mark Milley, president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told a House of Representatives committee on Wednesday.

A withdrawal from the United States, although conditioned by the Taliban, raises questions not only about the stability of the country, but also about the possibilities of continuing to fight non-Taliban extremists such as al Qaeda and the affiliate of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Some in Congress, including Republican representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, are pressuring Pentagon officials to ensure they will not cooperate or coordinate with the Taliban as an anti-terrorism partner.

It would be crazy, Cheney said Wednesday, trusting the Taliban, who drove Afghanistan and harbored Al Qaeda when US forces invaded in October 2001.

As part of the negotiated agreement, the Taliban promised not to allow Al Qaeda to use the country as a scenario to attack the United States or its allies.

If the peace process is successful and the United States ends up withdrawing completely, it could opt for an anti-terrorist force on the horizon. In that case, the US special operations troops. UU. They would be stationed in one or more nearby countries, such as Uzbekistan, and would enter and leave Afghanistan when necessary to monitor or attack al-Qaida or IS fighters.

It was the close Taliban association with al Qaeda, after the terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden carried out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, which led President George W Bush to invade Afghanistan one month after.

US strength levels in Afghanistan declined and flowed over the years.

At first, the Americans hoped that a small force could control Al Qaeda and train an Afghan army. But of approximately 2,500 soldiers at the end of 2001, the force increased to approximately 22,000 five years later.

President Barack Obama increased the number from approximately 34,000 at the beginning of his first term to 100,000. When he left the White House, the number had dropped to 8,400.

Trump took office in January 2017 without appetite for continuing the Afghan stalemate. However, he was persuaded in August 2017 to add several thousand troops as part of what he called a new strategy for the region.

That included appointing Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador. UU. In Kabul, to lead the negotiations with the Taliban that finally produced the agreement on Saturday and the opportunity for the United States to go beyond Afghanistan.