Pentagon prepares for Trump order to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq

Greg Nash

The Pentagon is preparing for an order from President Trump to withdraw several thousand U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq before he leaves office on Jan. 20, according to several reports.

The Defense Department is anticipating that Trump as soon as this week will order military officials to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 and the number of forces in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500 by Jan 15, CNN first reported.

The White House referred questions to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

The abrupt order comes following a leadership purge at the Pentagon last week and the placing of several Trump loyalists in the department’s top ranks.

The ousting began Nov. 9 when Trump fired then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in his place appointing Christopher Miller as acting Pentagon chief.

Miller, who had been serving as director of the National Counterterrorism Center since August, on Friday released a confusing and sometimes contradicting letter saying “it’s time to come home” from foreign conflicts but also noting that U.S. troops were not done fighting.

“This war isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating Al Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish. Indeed, this fight has been long, our sacrifices have been enormous, and many are weary of war – I’m one of them,” Miller wrote in reference to the current U.S. role of supporting counterterrorism campaigns in the Middle East.

“All wars must end,” he added. “Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”

A hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan would contradict months of warnings from top defense officials that doing so prematurely could ultimately worsen the chances for peace in the country.

Days before Trump fired Esper, the Pentagon head sent a classified memo to the president advising that the conditions were not sufficient in Afghanistan for any further troop withdrawals, as it could possibly undermine peace talks, The Washington Post reported.

Trump, who has long promised he would stop “endless wars” and bring U.S. troops back stateside, increased troops in Afghanistan from 8,600 to roughly 14,000 at the advice of military advisers in 2017.

Since then, his administration has sought to lower that number and in February signed a conditional peace deal with the Taliban that requires a full U.S. withdrawal by May if the group upholds certain commitments such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.

But since the deal was signed, there’s been a surge of Taliban violence against Afghan forces, jeopardizing the peace process.

Adding to the precariousness, Trump, who lost his bid for a second term to President-elect Joe Biden, has refused to concede, setting the stage for a rocky transition period in the midst of a troop drawdown.

After news of the impending pull out broke on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pushed back on such a decision.

“A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the Senate floor.

U.S. allies, meanwhile, have said they will stay in Afghanistan as needed.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who spoke with Miller on Friday, said that “NATO’s position hasn’t changed” on its role in the country, his spokesperson Oana Lungescu said Monday, as reported by The Associated Press.

“No NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary. 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,” Lungescu said.

NATO since 2003 has led the international security effort in Afghanistan and in 2014 moved to a train and advise role for Afghan security forces. Of the roughly 12,000 troops that make up the joint counterterrorism mission, known as Resolute Support, more than half are non-U.S. soldiers. The ally forces and their partners depend on U.S. air power, transportation, logistics and medical assistance, making it all but impossible for such a mission to continue if the United States leaves.

Lungescu added that NATO countries “will continue to consult on the future of our mission in Afghanistan, and we stand ready to further adjust our mission, in a coordinated manner and based on conditions on the ground.”

Updated at 4:04 p.m.

Tags Afghanistan Donald Trump Iraq Joe Biden Mark Esper Middle East Mitch McConnell troop withdrawal Trump order War

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