President Donald Trump has officially called for a significant troop reduction in Afghanistan and Iraq, citing no immediate national security threat to the American people, his new acting defense secretary said Tuesday.
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“By Jan. 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2,500, and our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date,” Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced from the Pentagon.
“We owe this moment to the many patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said of the 6,900 troops who have died and the 52,000 who’ve been wounded during the nearly two-decade conflicts in the region. “This decision by the president is based on continuous engagement with this national security cabinet over the past several months, including ongoing discussions with me and my colleagues across the United States government.”
Miller said he alerted members of Congress about the decision Tuesday morning.
“I have also spoken with our military commanders, and we all will execute this repositioning in a way that protects our fighting men and women, our partners in the intelligence community and diplomatic corps, and our superb allies that are critical to rebuilding Afghan and Iraqi security capabilities and civil society for lasting peace in troubled lands,” he said.
Trump appointed Miller, previously the director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a former Army Special Forces officer, to the acting SecDef position earlier this month following the firing of Mark Esper. Since then, reports have swirled that the president has been planning to reduce the U.S. end strength in the Middle East — an early campaign promise — before his presidency ends Jan. 20. Trump has yet to formally concede to his successor, President-elect Joe Biden, who has secured 306 electoral votes since Election Day.
Miller issued a memo Friday to the force signaling a decision was imminent.
“This is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role,” he said in the memo, which was obtained by multiple news outlets. “We are not a people of perpetual war. … We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
There are roughly 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq. The reduction would mean approximately 2,500 troops total would come home, or redeploy to other regions. The Defense Department did not detail which units will remain behind.
A senior defense official told reporters Tuesday, ahead of Miller’s announcement, that the Pentagon, commanders and national security officials came to a “collaborative” conclusion that 2,500 personnel is the right fit for the current U.S. Central Command mission.
The official did not detail what conditions have been met on the ground regarding enemy combatants such as the Taliban or al-Qaida, but said experts believe U.S. national security is no longer explicitly threatened.
The U.S.’ new force posture still “permits us to carry out a mission with allies and partners,” the official added.
Should there be “a fracturing event” in the future, top leaders trust troops are still capable of sustaining operations at those levels, the official said.
“The dynamics of the mission have not changed,” the official added. “The solution in Afghanistan is to broker a power sharing or some form of agreement whereby the Taliban and the Afghan people can live side by side in peace. … One is not going to militarily defeat the other, nor are we going to engage in a decade’s long war to that end, which we will not meet. So we feel this is the best decision to drive toward the peace agreement that we’ve been working on.”
Then, despite an increasing operations tempo for U.S. and coalition aircraft between 2017 and 2019, Trump indicated he was open to downsizing troop strength in the region to bring more American personnel home.
In his State of the Union address in February 2019, Trump highlighted the need to pull out of Afghanistan entirely.
“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said. “We have spent more than $7 trillion in the Middle East.”
Taliban and U.S. officials met several times last year in an effort to negotiate a potential peace deal and troop withdrawal; one such meeting followed the president’s trip to the region on Thanksgiving Day. But the peace process had setbacks, with bouts of recurring violence the U.S. has called “distressingly high” in recent months.
Prior to his firing, Esper sent a classified memo to top-level officials, including those in the White House, discouraging troop reductions until certain conditions were met in Afghanistan, according to a report from CNN. Those conditions were not detailed, but a unanimous decision was reached between Esper; Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM; and Army Gen. Austin Miller, commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, CNN said.
The senior defense official refused to address Esper’s memo Tuesday, saying, “There is no contradiction with the president and his national security cabinet.”
Following the announcement, lawmakers had mixed reactions on what the weeks ahead will entail for the U.S. posture in the region.
“As we evaluate the situation in Afghanistan and coordinate with our allies, we must ensure that our strategy and posture reflect the conditions on the ground,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, though he endorsed the move in general.
“President Trump’s South Asia strategy has been extremely successful, and his administration has scored major counterterrorism wins across the region, including taking out terrorist henchmen al-Baghdadi, Soleimani, and al-Rimi,” Inhofe said in a statement. “His military strategy has always reflected conditions on the ground, rather than being tied to an arbitrary calendar like his predecessor. Keeping the right military footprint in Afghanistan to perform counterterrorism missions and support our allies and Afghan partners is an essential part of that realistic approach, and is vital to protecting the homeland from attacks.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also offered a stamp of approval, calling it “the right policy decision.”
“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.
However, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, called the move a hasty lapse in judgment that undercuts negotiations with Afghan and Taliban leaders.
“I believe that these additional reductions of American troops from terrorist areas are a mistake,” said Thornberry, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. He is set to retire next month.
“The Taliban has done nothing — met no condition — that would justify this cut,” he said. “As long as there are threats to Americans and American national security in the world, the U.S. must be vigilant, strong, and engaged in order to safeguard our people and fulfill our duty under the Constitution.”