President Trump is expected to cut a significant number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a smaller number in Iraq by the final days of his presidency, U.S. officials say.
The plan would run counter to military commanders’ advice over the past year, while still falling short of Trump’s much-touted goal to end America’s long wars.
The decision comes just days after Trump installed a new slate of loyalists in top Pentagon positions who share his frustration with the continued troop presence in the war zones. The expected drawdown would still leave 2,500 troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning that President-elect Joe Biden would be the fourth president to grapple with the still-smoldering conflicts launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. officials said Monday that military leaders were told over the weekend about the planned withdrawals and that an executive order is in the works but has not yet been delivered to commanders. Officials cautioned that there could always be changes, and Trump is known to make snap decisions based on media reports and online chatter. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
There are 4,500 to 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and more than 3,000 in Iraq. Under the planned order, the troop cuts would be completed just five days before Biden takes office Jan. 20.
As news broke about the plan, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill issued stark warnings about making any hasty exit from Afghanistan that could jeopardize the peace process and undermine counterterrorism efforts.
Young Afghans fear losing new freedoms and their lives to the Taliban as U.S. troops prepare to exit.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Trump administration had made tremendous headway against terrorist threats, but warned against a potentially “humiliating” pullout from Afghanistan that he said would be worse than President Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and reminiscent of the U.S. departure from Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said of the plans for Afghanistan: “We need to ensure a residual force is maintained for the foreseeable future to protect U.S. national and homeland security interests and to help secure peace for Afghanistan.”
Military commanders have expressed less concern about the reduction in Iraq, where the Iraqi forces are better able to maintain their nation’s security.
Trump’s new Pentagon chief, Christopher Miller, hinted at the troop withdrawals over the weekend in a carefully worded message to the force.
Forget the art of the deal, President Trump is bent on pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and ending America’s longest war before the election.
“We remain committed to finishing the war that Al Qaeda brought to our shores in 2001,” he said, adding that “we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”
But Miller also made it clear that “all wars must end.”
“This fight has been long, our sacrifices have been enormous and many are weary of war. I’m one of them,” he said. ”Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
The accelerated withdrawal goes against the longstanding advice of Trump’s military leadership, including Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East. But officials suggested that commanders will be able to live with the partial pullout, which allows them to keep counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan and gives them time to remove critical equipment from the country.
A new Iraqi prime minister could help create a path toward a more productive bilateral relationship.
McKenzie and others have repeatedly argued that a hasty withdrawal could undercut negotiations to finalize ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of Afghan society, including the Afghan government. And they also say that U.S. forces should remain in the country to keep Islamic State militants in check.
Biden has sounded less absolute about troop withdrawal. He has said that some troops could stay in Afghanistan to focus on the counterterrorism mission. In response to a questionnaire before the election, he said: “Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too. But we must end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland and never have to go back.”
The expected order by Trump, first reported by CNN, adds to what has been a litany of muddled White House and Pentagon messages on withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, which have exacerbated the uncertainty felt by the troops and their families. Adding to the confusion is the Pentagon’s frequent failure to count hundreds of troops actually on the ground, including some special operations forces and personnel on temporary duty for only a few months. Often that is due to political sensitivities in those countries and in the U.S.
The Pentagon was already on track to cut troop levels in Afghanistan to about 4,500 by mid-November. U.S. military leaders have consistently said that further reductions must be based on conditions on the ground, including a measurable reduction in attacks by the Taliban on Afghan troops. They say they have not seen that yet.
America’s exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was laid out in an agreement that Washington reached last February with the Taliban. That deal said U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan in 18 months, provided that the Taliban honored a commitment to fight terrorist groups, with most attention seemingly focused on Islamic State’s affiliate in the country.
The White House, however, has issued a confusing series of statements about Afghanistan over the last month. Trump tweeted Oct. 7 that “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.” When asked about those comments, Robert O’Brien, his national security advisor, said Trump was merely expressing a hope.
O’Brien, meanwhile, has said that the number of troops in Afghanistan would drop to 2,500 by early next year. But defense officials said at the time that they had not received such orders.