President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to reduce U.S. troops numbers to a mere 2,500 each in Afghanistan and Iraq has triggered howls from senior Republicans on Capitol Hill. But it has also elicited sighs of relief in some military quarters, from those who feared the embittered incumbent would vent his rage over losing his re-election bid by ordering all U.S. troops home.
Trump’s Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret and combat veteran of both conflicts, confirmed on Tuesday that Trump had ordered troops to reduce from 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan, and from 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq. The departing troops are set to be gradually withdrawn in the coming weeks and out completely by Jan. 15, 2021, a mere five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes over the White House.
In his first public comments since his predecessor Mark Esper was fired by tweet on Nov. 9, Miller hailed what he called “President Trump’s plan to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion, and to bring our brave service members home.” He acknowledged the loss of the “6,900 American troops who gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq” as well as the “more than 52,000 who bear the wounds of war and all those who still carry its scars—visible and invisible.”
It’s highly irregular for an outgoing commander-in chief to make such a potentially destabilizing foreign policy decision in the waning days of an Administration—but then again, Trump isn’t a normal President. This was evident when his decision drew fire from his own party and plaudits from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who either condemned the move as abandoning U.S. allies in the region or praised Trump for calling time on an endless war.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decried the move on the Senate floor, likening it to the ignominious U.S. scramble to escape Saigon, leaving local American allies to the advancing North Vietnamese. “A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” the Kentucky Republican said.
Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, who serves as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said “reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision.” In recent years, a growing number of Democrats have argued against continued U.S. involvement in endless overseas conflicts and supported former President Barack Obama’s earlier efforts to wind down the wars in both countries.
The divergent political opinions may draw television cameras but they distract from the uncomfortable fact that Trump did not succeed in ending conflict in either nation as he’d promised in his 2016 campaign. At best, he may have succeeded in putting both conflicts on the back burner for the American people. With a nothing-to-see-here flourish, he is turning the two blood-soaked battlegrounds into the equivalent of Kosovo: a place where a small U.S. military presence has endured since 1999 to forestall chaos between Kosovars and Serbs, but too few know, or care.
Despite signing a much-lauded peace deal with Trump earlier this year, the Taliban’s stepped-up violence against the Afghan government has stalled peace talks between the militants and the Afghan government. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison told reporters in October that Taliban is “in violation of the spirit of the agreement they made with the U.S., if not the letter of that agreement.” The top U.S. general in Afghanistan told the BBC that the U.S. was holding back, for now. “We’ve shown a great deal of restraint because we’re trying to make this peace process work,” Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller said.
The announcement Tuesday was a culmination of a week of wild speculation that began after Trump fired Esper, forced the resignations of several senior officials and promoted three loyalists—Anthony Tata, Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Kash Patel—to key roles at the Pentagon. The purge of civilian leadership raised eyebrows as to what Trump’s true intentions were after being handed a decisive loss in the 2020 election: Was he trying to launch a coup? A personal vendetta?
The message became clear Monday when Miller, Trump’s fifth Pentagon chief in four years, wrote a Defense Department-wide letter outlining his foremost goals in the remaining nine weeks of the Administration. His first task, he said, was to “bring the current war (in Afghanistan) to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
That war, of course, is not ending. With 2,500 troops remaining in Afghanistan, U.S. forces will have to focus more on counterterrorism, and less on providing direct advising, logistics and air support to Afghan national forces, which are taking a beating from rising Taliban violence. To a large extent, U.S. troops had already moved their mission in that direction.
By keeping a modest presence there, the Trump Administration has preserved not only a hunter-killer presence of elite U.S. forces within striking distance of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan’s branch of the Islamic State, but a corps that can facilitate continued U.S. intelligence operations against Iran to the west and the frontier regions of Pakistan to the east, where militants still retreat when Afghanistan gets dangerous for them.
The small force could also serve as a foundation for a Biden Administration to build upon, should the Taliban not keep up their end of Trump’s peace deal that requires them to distance themselves from and repudiate Al-Qaeda, something the U.N says they haven’t yet done.
Seth G. Jones, a former advisor to U.S. special operations in Afghanistan, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this is probably enough troops to hunt Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, but he believes it would take at least 5,000 troops — slightly higher than the current 4,500 — or more to prevent a Taliban overthrow of the Afghan government. “I start to get nervous with going down to these levels,” he says.
A senior Afghan official tells TIME their forces will be able to keep up the fight, as long as they have air cover from U.S. fighter and bomber jets, which Miller has assured them will be there when needed.
Meanwhile, keeping only 2,500 troops in Iraq means a reduction of a mere 500 soldiers. That means enough will stay to continue advising Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS, and to provide some protection for the U.S. diplomatic mission.
The reduction in numbers does, however, help the Iraqi government resist persistent calls by both nationalist and Iranian-backed Iraqi politicians for the American troops to depart. On Tuesday, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi said he’d talked with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about “the future of cooperation between Iraq and the international coalition led by the United States of America, in light of the growing Iraqi capabilities in combating terrorism.” In other words: We’re fine with the drawdown, because we’re increasingly able to take care of ourselves.
Kenneth Pollack, a former NSC staffer and CIA analyst now with the American Enterprise Institute, says the Iraqis are making the best of it. “They know Trump wanted to walk away from Iraq altogether,” and is making the move for politics’ sake. “It will be harder for our forces to do what they are trying to do in terms of fighting bad guys and helping good guys with so few troops—and defend themselves. So it was another gratuitous self-inflicted blow to U.S. interests—and burden on the U.S. military—inflicted by Trump,” he says, adding, “But it could have been worse.”
When Obama ordered a swift pullout of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 after failing to reach a troop agreement with the Iraqi government, U.S. military and intelligence officers had no time to help their Iraqi counterparts figure out how to keep operating without U.S. logistical support, or without the data gathered from U.S. spy drones and other technical surveillance. The Iraqis were left blind, current and former Iraqi officials, as well as U.S. intelligence and special operators say. That helped lead to the rise of ISIS from the burning ashes of al-Qaeda of Iraq combined with Baathist military elements, producing a terrorist group that grew to tens of thousands of fighters, operating with military precision and capturing large swathes of eastern Syria and Iraq.
Acting Defense Secretary Miller said the new drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan was a step toward fulfilling three U.S. goals in 2001, after al-Qaeda had carried out the 9/11 attacks: destroying terrorist organizations and sanctuaries; strengthening U.S. defenses against future attack; and preventing the growth of Islamist terrorists. But Miller was careful not to offer a judgement on whether the U.S. had met any of those goals, nor did he acknowledge that Trump’s time as Commander in Chief is coming to an end, simply wishing that “in the coming year, we will finish this generational war.”
The rump U.S. troop presence that Trump is leaving his successor will provide a framework that future U.S. troops could plug into, and not a complete vacuum, especially if the military takes its time in packing up those troops to come home. And when Biden does take office in January, he’ll find the troop numbers already cut to the “few thousand” in each theater he’d said he’d intended to keep there.
But if the conflict worsens in either country, Biden will almost inevitably bear the political cost of either decision he’ll be forced to make: abandoning key U.S. allies, or sending U.S. troops back into harm’s way.