WASHINGTON – President Donald 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 said Monday.
The decision comes just days after Trump selected new officials for top Pentagon positions who share his frustration with the continued troop presence in the war zones. But the expected plans would leave 2,500 troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning that President-elect Joe Biden would be the fourth president to grapple with the conflicts launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
U.S. officials said military leaders were told over the weekend about the planned withdrawals and that an executive order is in the works but has not been delivered to commanders. Officials cautioned that there could always be changes.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
There are 4,500 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan and more than 3,000 in Iraq.
As news broke about the plan, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill warned about any hasty exit from Afghanistan that could jeopardize the peace process and hurt counterterrorism efforts.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell noted the Trump administration has made tremendous headway against terrorist threats, but he warned against a potentially “humiliating” pullout from Afghanistan that he said would be worse than then-President Barack Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and reminiscent of the U.S. departure from Saigon in 1975.
Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican leader 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.”
Under the planned order, the troop cuts would be completed before Biden takes office Jan. 20. 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.
“We remain committed to finishing the war that al-Qaida brought to our shores in 2001,” he said, and warned that “we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”
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, however, would go against the advice of Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, 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 fro the country.
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 warn 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 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 adds to what has been muddled White House and Pentagon messages on troops withdrawals from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Adding to the confusion: The Pentagon has historically failed to count up to 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 troops levels in Afghanistan to about 4,500 by mid-November. U.S. military leaders have consistently said that going below that number must be based on conditions on the ground, including a measurable reduction in attacks by the Taliban on Afghan troops. And they insist they have not seen that yet.
America’s exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was laid out in a February agreement Washington reached with the Taliban. That agreement said U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan in 18 months, provided the Taliban honored a commitment to fight terrorist groups, with most attention seemingly focused on the Islamic State group’s affiliate in the country.
Military officials also have warned that there is a large amount of critical, classified equipment in Afghanistan that must be removed, but it will take time. They also say that any full U.S. withdrawal needs to be coordinated with other coalition allies that have troops in the country.
The Taliban and Afghan government negotiators have been meeting for more than a month in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar with little sign of progress. The Taliban, meanwhile, have staged near daily deadly attacks against Afghan forces.