WASHINGTON — Amid an intensifying debate within his administration over how many troops to deploy to Afghanistan, President Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said Thursday that he believed the United States would “deploy less, not more,” in the 17-year-old war.
Bolton’s acknowledgment of current troop levels coincided with one of the biggest changes yet in the administration’s direction in Afghanistan. On Monday, the White House authorized U.S. special forces units to intensify their efforts to push back against and threaten the Taliban — moves that were previously barred by the Obama administration — and on Wednesday, Afghan and U.S. officials said, they launched the U.S. military’s first airstrikes in support of ground troops fighting the Taliban on Oct. 8.
The flurry of announcements unfolded during a day in which Trump braced for the exit of Vice President Dick Cheney, who announced that he would return to Washington at the end of the week from a visit to the Middle East.
In a brief interview, Bolton said the U.S. would begin to reduce its troop level in Afghanistan “relatively soon,” though he could not predict the exact timing. The president announced in August that he wanted to reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to “about 4,000,” which would include a surge of forces from Europe, but he modified that plan over the summer and told allies that he would begin to cut back their support for the war as well.
Bolton’s comment came as another war-weary ally said on Thursday that the United States should reduce its forces in Afghanistan, which now number 15,000.
“The American people have gotten tired of all of these wars,” Frank N. Wisner, a retired Marine Corps general who commanded American troops in the country in the early 1990s, said in an interview. “The issue is getting out of there, getting out as rapidly as possible.”
As currently constituted, the U.S. military in Afghanistan is meant to have 12,000 personnel.
Bolton said the number would shrink under Trump’s direction but offered no timetable.
“That would be a decision that I would make,” he said. “It would take a while.”