Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on Tuesday announced plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the decision fulfills President Donald Trump’s pledge to bring forces home even as Republicans and U.S. allies warn against a rash withdrawal.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday broke with Trump in rare remarks, warning against the United States undertaking any quick changes in American defense or foreign policy, including toward Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It is extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes in regard to defense or for policy," McConnell told reporters, adding that a "precipitous drawdown (of U.S. troops) in Afghanistan or Iraq would be a mistake."
Trump's new plan will accelerate troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan in Trump’s final days in office, despite arguments from senior military officials in favor of a slower, more methodical pullout. Trump has refused to concede his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who takes office January 20, just five days after the troop withdrawals are slated to finish.
Miller, who refused to take questions from reporters, said the plan will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500. Miller added that the U.S. remains ready to respond if conditions deteriorate.
“If the forces of terror, instability, division and hate begin a deliberate campaign to disrupt our efforts, we stand ready to apply the capabilities required to thwart them,” he said in a roughly eight-minute statement to reporters in the Pentagon briefing room.
The withdrawal plan falls short of Trump’s oft-repeated vow to end America’s long wars. It also runs counter to his guidance that troop withdrawals be based on the conditions on the ground, not a date on the calendar.
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In Afghanistan, in particular, military and defense leaders have consistently said the Taliban has not yet met requirements to reduce violent attacks against Afghan government forces. U.S. forces have remained in Afghanistan since they invaded in October 2001.
The top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry also slammed the troop cut as a "mistake."
"Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing - met no condition - that would justify this cut," Thornberry said.
U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.
It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the al Qaeda September 11 attacks on the United States.
Some U.S. military officials had been urging Trump to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.
Rick Olson, a former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the remaining 2,500 troops still give the United States some leverage in advancing the peace process, but "it would have been better to have left them at 4,500."
"Zero would have been truly awful, while 2,500 is maybe okay, but it's probably not very stable," he said. "I would say 2,500 is probably stable as long as the U.S.-Taliban peace holds. But that may not happen because the Taliban have not done a reduction in violence, as they committed to do."
Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, cautioned that "if we are pulling out faster than the withdrawal schedule, there's no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate."
Taliban militants, fighting against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw U.S. troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.
Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals, in some case prompting U.S. airstrikes.
In Iraq, four rockets fell in the Green Zone in Baghdad on Tuesday, an Iraqi military statement said. The fortified zone houses government buildings and foreign missions.
The decision has already received a cool reception from some Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, and a somewhat uncharacteristically blunt critique from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the president is keeping his promise to the American people to get U.S. troops out of war zones. “By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” O’Brien told reporters at the White House shortly after Miller made the announcement at the Pentagon.
“I want to reiterate that this policy is not new,” O’Brien said. “This has been the president’s policy since he took office.”
The withdrawal stops short of his pledge on October 7, when Trump said on Twitter: "We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!"