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story.lead_photo.caption Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford speak to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said Thursday that the U.S. plans to withdraw more than 5,000 troops from Afghanistan and then will determine further drawdowns in the longest war in American history.

Trump's comment comes as a U.S. envoy is in his ninth round of talks with the Taliban to find a resolution to the nearly 18-year-old war. The president said the U.S. was "getting close" to making a deal, but that the outcome is uncertain.

"Who knows if it's going to happen," Trump told Fox News Radio's The Brian Kilmeade Show.

Trump did not offer a timeline for withdrawing troops. The Pentagon has been developing plans to withdraw as many as half of the 14,000 U.S. troops still there, but the Taliban want all U.S. and NATO forces withdrawn.

"We're going down to 8,600 [troops] and then we'll make a determination from there," Trump said, adding that the U.S. is going to have a "high intelligence" presence in Afghanistan going forward.

Reducing the U.S. troop level to 8,600 would lower the total to about where it was when Trump took office in January 2017. According to the NATO/Resolute Support mission, the U.S. had 9,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2016, during President Barack Obama's administration, and 8,000 in 2017.

Trump has called Afghanistan -- where the Taliban harbored members of the al-Qaida network responsible for 9/11 -- the "Harvard University of terror."

If terror groups ever attacked America from Afghanistan again, "we will come back with a force like they've never seen before," Trump said. But he added: "I don't see that happening."

Al-Qaida insurgents used Afghanistan as a base from which to plan the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. A month later, U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan, where they have remained ever since. More than 2,400 American service members have died in the conflict.

A Taliban spokesman also has said that a final agreement is close. But even as the talks go on, there are persistent attacks by the Taliban across Afghanistan, and an affiliate of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, has taken root in the country and is expanding its base.

"Taliban and ISIS are still potential threats for the national security of Afghanistan and the US. The Afghan government strongly believes that any reduction of US forces in Afghanistan will be based on conditions on the ground," Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said in a statement.

He added that the Afghan government hopes that Afghanistan and the U.S. will continue to fight international terrorism together as the countries have done for many years.

"The level of threats from the Taliban and ISIS has increased in Afghanistan and it is therefore needed now more than any other time to counter them together and make sure that we will not leave any gap that would give the Taliban an opportunity to turn this country again in to a safe haven for international terrorists," he said.

A State Department spokesman said U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and his team continued to make progress Thursday in Doha, Qatar, toward an agreement with the Taliban. The spokesman was not authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

"If and when we are able to announce an agreement, the process will pivot to intra-Afghan negotiations, where the Taliban will sit with other Afghans and together they will commit to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire," the spokesman said in an email.

Afghanistan's government expects that Khalilzad will soon update officials in Kabul on the Taliban talks.

Even if Khalilzad is able to close a deal, it will remain for the Afghan government to negotiate its own peace agreement with the Taliban. Part of those talks will be determining a role for the Taliban in governing a country that it ruled before U.S. forces invaded in October 2001.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, have urged caution about trusting the Taliban to keep Afghanistan from becoming a launch pad for international terror attacks again.

"The United States cannot contract out the American people's security to the Taliban who, in exchange for a U.S. withdrawal, simply 'promise' to guarantee that al-Qaida and ISIS [in Afghanistan] are denied haven," they wrote in an op-ed Wednesday in The Washington Post.

Graham and Keane said they fear a U.S. withdrawal will not end the war and could start a new civil war as Afghan forces feel betrayed and abandoned and the Afghan government is severely undermined and weakened.

Information for this article was contributed by Tameem Akhgar and Cara Anna of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/30/2019

Print Headline: Trump: 5,400 troops to exit Afghanistan

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