Washington: Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to accelerate a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each nation, as the president works to deliver on his longtime pledge to exit from “endless wars” before he leaves office in January.
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced the decision Tuesday at the Pentagon. The order would reduce troops from about 4,500 in Afghanistan and from about 3,000 in Iraq less than a week before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
“We will finish this generational war and bring our men and women home,” Miller, who replaced fired Secretary Mark Esper this month, told reporters at the Pentagon. The acting secretary, declining to take questions on the policy, left after reading a statement.
Speaking a few minutes after Miller, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said at the White House that “by May it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety.”
While the move helps Trump fulfill a campaign vow, reports on the proposal drew bipartisan criticism from lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before it was formally released. It also prompted a warning from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said Tuesday before the announcement that the “price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”
“Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands,” Stoltenberg said. He added that Islamic State, or ISIS, “could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”
But Miller and defense officials who briefed reporters said the acting secretary had been in touch with NATO allies as well as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. And they insisted that the “conditions” for a drawdown had been met, even though violence in Afghanistan has climbed despite a U.S.-Taliban peace deal this year.
Pressed on exactly what conditions had been met, a senior defense official said that the drawdown posed no threat to U.S. national security and that any challenges on the ground could be met by remaining forces in the country or region. The official didn’t address conditions on the ground in Afghanistan.
“We set out to accomplish three goals in 2001,” Miller said, referring to the start of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. “First, go abroad and destroy terrorists, their organizations and their sanctuaries. Two, strengthen our defenses against future attacks, and three, prevent the continued growth of Islamist terrorism to include by working with allies and local partners to take the lead in the fight.”
The Trump administration’s decision divided members of both parties on Capitol Hill.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is usually a staunch Trump ally, said on the Senate floor Monday that there’s little support in Congress for “simply walking away” from the conflicts.
“The consequences of a premature American exit” from Afghanistan “would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
Representative Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, quickly voiced his opposition.
“Increased military pressure brought the Taliban to the table and pretty much everybody agreed that further reductions would be conditions-based,” Thornberry of Texas, told reporters Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation. “The Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” Thornberry added later in a statement.
But Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, called it the “right policy decision” if “carefully executed.”
“While the history of conflict in the region is complex and predates our direct involvement, after nearly 20 years of armed conflict, Americans and Afghans alike are ready for the violence to end,” Smith said in a statement. “It is clear that groups like ISIS-K and the Taliban will continue to fight and sow chaos, but ultimately it is up to the Afghans to find a sustainable path to peace.”
The move comes after Trump fired Esper and replaced other top officials at the Pentagon with loyalists last week. Esper sent a classified memo to the White House this month expressing concerns about additional troop cuts, the Washington Post has reported, citing two senior officials it didn’t identify.
In Kabul, Acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid told the Afghan parliament Tuesday, before the announcement, that there was no concern about a complete withdrawal of foreign troops.
“I don’t see any clear indication that the U.S. or NATO forces will fully withdraw from the country,” Khalid said. “Some other countries in NATO are still considering whether to remain or leave,” he said, noting Afghan forces were in charge of 96% of operations across the country and only 4% of those need foreign air support.
In a memorandum issued on Monday, Miller said his goal was to “bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
Miller, a former Green Beret and White House counterterrorism coordinator, said in a memo Friday to all Defense Department employees that “ending wars requires compromise and partnership.”
“We met the challenge; we gave it our all,” Miller said in the memo. “Now, it‘s time to come home.” –Bloomberg