WASHINGTON – The Pentagon announced plans to reduce troops levels to 2,500 in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving a residual force in both countries as President Donald Trump is scheduled to leave office.
The announcement comes one week after Trump sacked senior leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and installed a slate of officials who support his aim. Among them is acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.
Miller, an Army combat veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, called the withdrawal prudent, well-planned and coordinated. Members of Congress and allies were informed this morning.
“This is consistent with our established plan and strategic objectives,” Miller said.
Miller did not take questions from reporters.
Esper and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have advocated for reducing the American presence there only when security conditions allowed. But a senior Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said two conditions had been met: national security in the United States will not be threatened and the remaining troops will be able to assist the government in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq. The withdrawal would be completed by Jan. 15, 2021, just five days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. It falls short of Trump’s vow to end American involvement in those countries.
Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, said Trump had fulfilled his pledge to “put a stop to America’s endless wars.” The remaining troops will mostly defend embassies and assist allies, O’Brien said.
Senators sound off
Trump found support, opposition and trepidation for the announcement.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wrote a letter to Miller saying a majority of Americans favor an end to the war in Afghanistan but have been ignored by policymakers.
“The American people deserve an end to this war,” Hawley wrote. “They deserve to know their sons and daughters will not be put in harm’s way unless it is absolutely necessary. And they deserve to see their tax dollars actually being used to defend them – from Chinese domination, above all – or reinvested at home, in their families and communities.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, criticized Trump’s move as politically motivated.
“The decision to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and potentially elsewhere should not be based on a U.S. political calendar,” Romney said in a statement. “The Administration has yet to explain why reducing troops in Afghanistan – where conditions for withdrawal have not been met – is a wise decision for our national security interests in the region.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., blasted the move, saying the reduced military presence would expose the remaining troops to danger.
“This is the wrong way,” said Duckworth, a combat veteran who lost both legs in Iraq. “We want our troops home, but let’s not bring them home in body bags, and that’s potentially what’s going to happen if this president gets his way and puts his own political timeline ahead of our national security.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said Trump disregarded advice from military leaders and is putting troops and allies at risk.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this,” Reed said in a statement. “President Trump is once again choosing the wrong way and we can’t let U.S. national security and our relationships with steadfast partners become a casualty of President Trump’s wounded ego.”
‘Almost 20 years’
The U.S. has had troops in Afghanistan since October 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks. They sought the al-Qaida militants who had planned the attack there and received support from the militant Taliban government. Since February, the Trump administration has been negotiating with the Taliban to reach a peace deal with the Afghan government that would allow a withdrawal of American forces there.
American troops invaded Iraq in 2003 based on flawed intelligence that indicated Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to the United States.
NATO countries, including the United States, have about 12,000 troops in Afghanistan.
“We now face a difficult decision,” Secretary General Jens Stoletenberg said in a statement. “We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. But at the same time, 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 organise attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”
Contributing: Christal Hayes