President Trump is preparing to announce as early as this week that the U.S. will withdraw thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan just days before Inauguration Day in January, moving to fulfill a campaign promise but also sparking fierce blowback from some of his top political allies.
The looming drawdown, first reported by CNN, suggests that the new Pentagon leadership Mr. Trump has installed is ready to bring down the number of troops stationed in the region despite pushback from officials and experts who warn that a U.S. presence is still needed to defend national interests and defend longtime allies facing very real threats.
According to multiple reports, the Defense Department has issued a “warning order” to commanders to start drawing up plans to roughly halve the number of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, and to reduce the Iraqi deployment by a third, also to 2,500 troops, by Jan. 15 — five days before presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden takes office.
U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, making it the longest war in American history. U.S. troops spearheaded the invasion that toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, left for a few years early in the Obama administration, and returned to Iraq in force in 2014 to deal with the rise of Islamic State.
The drawdown move comes despite barely veiled warnings from top Pentagon generals that a drawdown — especially in Afghanistan — could leave U.S. troops and U.S. allies exposed at a perilous time.
A peace deal between Trump administration and Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency, struck last February, calls for an end to America’s military presence in exchange for guarantees the Taliban will not permit the country to be a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and that the radical
The U.S. had about 12,000 troops in the country when the deal was signed. The number is now about 4,500. There are roughly 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from more than 5,000 last year.
Administration officials have previously said the number of troops in Afghanistan will be down to 2,500 by early year, but Mr. Trump last month abruptly said on Twitter that he wanted all forces home by Christmas — far earlier than the mid-2021 deadline for full withdrawal laid out in the U.S.-Taliban deal.
Presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden has previously stated that he supports ending the nearly two-decade old war but a limited presence should be maintained in Afghanistan for counterterrorism efforts.
“Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too,” Mr. Biden said ahead of the election. “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 White House or Pentagon have yet to formally comment on the reports, but the anticipated announcement has already divided Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“It’s time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq,” tweeted Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, adding that Mr. Trump is honoring his pledge to “stop America’s endless wars and bringing our brave men and women home.”
But others, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, are cautioning against an early exit.
“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” Mr. McConnell said Monday in an unusually pointed speech on the Senate floor. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975,” he continued.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, also issued a rebuke of the rumored plans.
“A premature U.S. withdrawal would not only jeopardize the Afghan government’s ability to negotiate, but would endanger U.S. counterterrorism interests,” the Texas Republican said. “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.”
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg revealed Monday that the NATO chief had spoke to Mr. Miller late last week about the situation in Afghanistan, sounding a cautionary note over the mission that includes troops from a large number of NATO countries.
“No NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told reporters in Brussels. “At the same time, we want to preserve the gains made with such sacrifice, and to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that can attack the United States or any other NATO ally.”
No more ‘perpetual war’
The reports come just days after Mr. Trump’s new acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller called for an end to the era of “perpetual war” and to bring American troops home.
Mr. Miller, a military veteran and counterterrorism official who was tapped for his new post after the abrupt firing of Mark Esper last week, made it crystal clear in a message to Pentagon colleagues over the weekend that he shares Mr. Trump’s view that “endless wars” abroad are not in America’s interest.
“We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought,” he wrote. “All wars must end. Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
Mr. Miller did not explicitly mention Afghanistan, but it’s clear that is the administration’s top priority in terms of troop withdrawals.
Although the reasoning behind Mr. Trump’s eleventh-hour Pentagon reshuffling remains unclear, critics have said that it would be a mistake for the president to install Mr. Miller and a series of newly minted senior aides simply to conduct a faster exit.
The accelerated withdrawal, however, contradicts the guidance from top Pentagon brass, including Gen. Frank McKenzie, who leads U.S. forces in the Middle East.
Earlier this year, Gen. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told a congressional panel that “conditions on the ground” will dictate the number of U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan, depending on the level of violence in the country.
At the time, Gen. McKenzie said that the level of violence was too high to carry out a further drawdown.
Last month, the Mr. Trump’s own special envoy for peace negotiations with the Taliban and Afghan government, veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, warned of “distressingly high” levels of violence that remain in the country, with the Taliban and government forces routinely engaged in attacks and Islamic State having staged some spectacular terror strikes in the heart of Kabul.
Although the updated pullout has assured some military leaders that a level of counterterrorism forces will be able to remain in the region, skepticism remains that the ambitious timeline may not be logistically attainable.
“We’re not going to leave anything behind that somebody could use against us in another time and another place,” Gen. McKenzie said in September. “So that’s actually a huge logistics effort and it is continuing now.”
The Pentagon has been steadily closing smaller forward based in Iraq, as the Baghdad government has taken over the fight against Islamic State elements. But analysts warn that Islamic State is far from finished and that Iraq is facing internal and external pressure from its neighbor Iran to break away from Washington.
The Iraqi government has tried to balance the competing pressures from the U.S. and Iran, but Iran’s official press reported that Tehran is now pressing for a new defense cooperation agreement even as the U.S. deployment is set to go down.
The chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, on Sunday told reporters that a draft agreement between the two countries is in its final stages.
Once signed, the partnership could present a new challenge for Mr. Biden once he assumes office as tensions between the U.S. and Iran have soared throughout the Trump administration.
Gen. Baqueri said that the agreement would bolster Iraqi security as the number of U.S. forces in the country is expected to decrease as the region faces a resurgence of terrorism.