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US meets troops reduction goal in Afghanistan, Iraq

US meets troops reduction goal in Afghanistan, Iraq
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The U.S. military has met its Friday deadlines of dropping down to 2,500 service members in Afghanistan and the same number in Iraq, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in two separate statements.

Miller had announced that President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Georgia secretary of state withholds support for 'reactionary' GOP voting bills MORE ordered the drawdowns from 4,500 service members in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq shortly after he became acting secretary in November after Trump fired previous Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperFemale generals' promotions held back over fears of Trump's response: report Overnight Defense: Army details new hair and grooming standards | DC National Guard chief says Pentagon restricted his authority before riot | Colorado calls on Biden not to move Space Command New Army hair and grooming standards allow for ponytails, buzz cuts and earrings MORE as part of a post-election purge at the Pentagon.

The Afghanistan drawdown proceeded despite a bill that became law at the beginning of the year requiring the Defense Department to deliver Congress an assessment of the risks before withdrawing any more troops.

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The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which became law after Congress overrode Trump’s veto for the first time, blocked funding for the U.S. military to drop below the number of troops in Afghanistan when it was enacted until the risk assessment is sent to Congress.

At the time the NDAA became law, the military had more than 2,500 service members in Afghanistan but less than 3,500, a Defense official told The Hill, declining to get more specific.

The NDAA did allow the requirement for an assessment to be waived for national security concerns. No such waiver has been sent to Congress yet, but the Defense official said Friday one is in the works and could be sent to lawmakers as soon as next week.

Since the NDAA was enacted, the Pentagon “has been working with the [National Security Council] on the most efficient means to ensure consistency amidst an anterior drawdown already occurring across Afghanistan, and in a manner that continues to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel,” Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Rob Lodewick said in a statement Friday.

“Pursuant to the requirements set forth in Section 1215 of the FY21 NDAA, the president has determined that waiving the limitations of this section with respect to a reduction in the total number of U.S armed forces deployed to Afghanistan is important to the national security interests of the United States,” Lodewick added.

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Because the drawdown was already fully in motion when the NDAA was enacted, pausing it would have caused “significant security concerns” for the hundreds of troops moving out, the official said. The drawdown might have been able to be delayed had the bill become law a month earlier, the official added.

The NDAA also blocks going below 2,000 service members without an assessment of the risk, a decision that, come next week, will be in the hands of President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenKlain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' Senators given no timeline on removal of National Guard, Capitol fence Overnight Defense: New Senate Armed Services chairman talks Pentagon policy nominee, Afghanistan, more | Biden reads report on Khashoggi killing | Austin stresses vaccine safety in new video MORE.

Biden has said he would withdraw most troops from Afghanistan, but leave a small contingent of special forces there to conduct counterterrorism missions.

Trump continued to push forward with drawing down in Afghanistan even as U.S. and military officials said the Taliban has yet to meet commitments that it agreed to in February.

The U.S.-Taliban deal calls for a full U.S. withdrawal by May if the Taliban upholds counterterrorism commitments such as denying safe haven to al Qaeda.

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But in addition to not yet breaking with al Qaeda, the Taliban has stepped up attacks against Afghan forces, drawing condemnation from U.S. officials. And peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government have been halting, at best.

Still, in his Friday statement, Miller argued “the United States is closer than ever to ending nearly two decades of war and welcoming in an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.” 

Miller also said the planning continues for a full withdrawal by May, potentially putting pressure on Biden as he considers how to proceed.

“Moving forward, while the department continues with planning capable of further reducing U.S. troop levels to zero by May of 2021, any such future drawdowns remain conditions-based,” he said. “All sides must demonstrate their commitment to advancing the peace process. Further, the United States will continue to take any action necessary to ensure protection of our homeland, our citizens and our interests.”