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Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake'

Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake'
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Happy Tuesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The rumors were true.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE has ordered the Pentagon to pull 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by mid-January, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced Tuesday.

The Defense Department will 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, days before Trump is set to leave office.

“I am formally announcing that we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces” from Afghanistan and Iraq, Miller told reporters at the Pentagon.

Who advised the decision? Miller said that Trump’s decision “is based on continuous engagement with his national security Cabinet for the past several months, including ongoing discussions with me and my colleagues across the United States government.”

Ahead of Miller's announcement, a senior Defense official told reporters that the drawdown was a “collaborative decision," but would not say which military leaders had recommended the plan.

The official also would not say which conditions had been met by the Taliban to warrant such a drawdown in Afghanistan but insisted that U.S. national security will not be threatened and the troops remaining overseas will still be able to assist allies and partners in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

A contradiction: The drawdown order — which contradicts months of previous advice from top Defense officials — comes a week after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and replaced him with Miller.

Esper’s ouster also set off a leadership purge at the Pentagon, with several of those positions now filled by Trump loyalists.

The departures appeared to help clear the way for Trump to order the hasty drawdown, as the military has long argued against going below 4,500 troops in Afghanistan.

Conditions on the ground do not warrant a further drawdown, they have said, as the Taliban has failed to uphold its agreement with the United States for peace in the country.

Days before Trump fired Esper, for example, 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.

The senior Defense official on Tuesday would not address the document, telling reporters "we’re not going to comment on any memo that you may or may not have in your possession.”

New report doesn’t back drawdown: The sentiment that a further drawdown wouldn't be prudent was repeated in a Pentagon watchdog report released only hours before Trump's order, which found that the Taliban has conducted a “small number” of attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, despite its February agreement with the administration banning such attacks.

The Operation Freedom’s Sentinel inspector general report marks the first official confirmation that the Taliban has launched attacks against coalition forces in violation of the U.S.-Taliban deal.

Further highlighting the discrepancy between Tuesday's announcement and previous military opinion, the Pentagon told the inspector general that once it reached 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, it would “pause troop reductions and assess the situation.”

The background: The United States has had forces in Afghanistan since October 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks, seeking to oust al Qaeda militants who had planned the attack from there.

Washington also sent its troops to invade Iraq in 2003 based on inaccurate intelligence that claimed then-President Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to the United States.

While Trump has long promised to return U.S. troops stateside, he announced early in his presidency that he would increase troop levels in Afghanistan from 8,600 to roughly 14,000 at the advice of military advisers.

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

Since the deal was signed, however, the Taliban has stepped up attacks against Afghan forces, which U.S. officials have repeatedly condemned as threatening the peace process. Officials have also warned that further drawdowns without a show from the Taliban that they are adhering to the agreement will weaken the U.S. position in peace talks.

The senior Defense official insisted on Tuesday that despite the drawdown, talks with the Taliban “are still very much ongoing. ... Our goal is the peace deal."

NATO urges caution: Miller called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday and also spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the announcement. Stoltenberg issued a strong statement warning that “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

Stoltenberg cautioned that the region "risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands,” if forces leave too quickly.

NATO leads the international security effort in Afghanistan where it trains and advises 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.

 

LAWMAKERS SPEAK OUT: The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is backing the Trump administration’s drawdown in Afghanistan even as other lawmakers in both parties warn about the dangers of a hasty withdrawal.

“After speaking with the acting secretary this morning, I believe reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement Tuesday.

“At the same time, this reduction must be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region,” he added.

Smith’s statement came after Miller announced Trump ordered the U.S. military to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Smith’s stance: In his statement, Smith argued that “Americans and Afghans alike are ready for the violence to end” after nearly 20 years of war.

“It is clear that groups like ISIS-K and the Taliban will continue to fight and sow chaos, but ultimately it is up to the Afghans to find a sustainable path to peace,” he said.

Still, Smith said the drawdown should be coordinately “closely” with allies, something the Trump administration has not yet done.

“Our primary goal has been, and continues to be, the prevention of transnational terrorists from launching an attack against the United States from Afghanistan,” he said. “In order to contain the terrorist threat as we draw down our troop levels, it is critical that we coordinate the drawdown closely with our allies, as well as our partners in the Afghan government, to protect our interests and those of our allies in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate: Senate Armed Services Committee James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a staunch Trump supporter, also signaled support for the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying Miller and national security adviser Robert O’Brien assured him they are “consulting with our allies, and that, with their plan, we will be able to carry out our mission of protecting the American people from terrorist attacks originating in Afghanistan, safeguarding Afghan gains and supporting our partners and allies.”

But Inhofe also said he is awaiting more details from the Pentagon and from the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller.

“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,” Inhofe said in a statement.

The pushback: Other lawmakers in both parties blasted the drawdowns.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned it would be a “mistake” to precipitously yank troops from Afghanistan or Iraq and urged the administration to make no major defense or foreign policy changes for the rest of the year.

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (Texas), also called the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq a “mistake.”

“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition — that would justify this cut,” Thornberry, who is retiring from Congress at the end of the year, said in a statement.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq veteran, similarly warned about undermining intra-Afghan peace talks.

“At a time when we are finally seeing serious peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Donald Trump is unilaterally taking one of our best bargaining chips off the table—and getting nothing in return,” Duckworth said.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) called the drawdowns a “retreat.”

Read more here.

 

IN OTHER NEWS… ANNUAL WREATHS ACROSS AMERICA BACK ON AFTER BACKLASH OVER CANCELLATION: The Army on Tuesday announced that it had instructed the Arlington National Cemetery to host the Wreaths Across America Day event honoring fallen veterans after an announcement Monday evening resulted in backlash over the event's cancellation due to safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The Secretary of the Army has directed Arlington National Cemetery to safely host Wreaths Across America,” the Army said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “We appreciate the families and visitors who take time to honor and remember those who are laid to rest at our nation’s most hallowed ground.”

The Army added that the cemetery would be issuing “an update on the final schedule soon.” 

President Trump claimed in a tweet shortly after the Army's statement that he was the one who "reversed the ridiculous decision" to cancel the event. 

"It will now go on!" he added.

The original cancellation: Wreaths Across America first announced Monday evening the cancellation of the event, in which volunteers lay wreaths at the tombstones of veterans. The organization wrote in a statement shared on Twitter that it was “shocked by this unexpected turn of events.” 

“It has been a trying year for all, and we too, want all our volunteers, donors and their communities to remain safe,” the statement added. “This is why over the last six months, the team at Wreaths has been working tirelessly with local, state and national officials to ensure that all of our outdoor wreath-placement events are done so safely, following local rules and mandates.” 

The uproar: Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), a former Navy SEAL officer, responded to the announcement Monday by tweeting that the cancellation “must be reversed immediately.”

“Critical thinking must win out over emotion,” he added. “Large areas, outside and well spaced, with masks on, is perfectly safe. Our fallen deserve to be remembered.”

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) had also criticized the cancellation, tweeting Tuesday morning, “I encourage Army leaders to reconsider this decision.” 

“Thousands of people have marched in DC streets the past couple weekends for Joe Biden and Donald Trump,” Cotton added. “Surely volunteers can responsibly place wreaths on the graves of our fallen heroes at Arlington.”

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

The Heritage Foundation will hold a webinar on the “U.S.-Taiwan Partnership in Challenging Times,” with Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (R-Pa.) and the Republic of China Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chen Ming-tong, at 8 a.m. 

The Air Force Association will hold its Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Nuclear Deterrence Forum with retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, a former under secretary of energy for nuclear security, at 10 a.m. 

The National Council on U.S. Arab Relations will hold its annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference, with Former Kuwait Finance Minister Nayef Falah Al-Hajraf, cooperation council for the Arab States of the Gulf Secretary-General; Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Timothy Lenderking; and Saudi Ambassador to the United States Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, beginning at 10 a.m.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) will hold a virtual discussion on a new report, "The United States and Europe: A Concrete Agenda for Transatlantic Cooperation on China,” at 11 a.m.

Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command; and former Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategy Nadia Schadlow will speak during a Hudson Institute webinar on “The Role of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data in Military Operations” at 12 p.m. 

Lt. Gen. James Pasquarette, the Army deputy chief of staff, G-8, will speak at the Association of the U.S. Army’s “Noon Report” webinar on Army modernization at 12 p.m.

Former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday Bolton calls on GOP leadership to label Trump's behavior 'inexcusable' MORE will participate in a Washington Post Live discussion at 12 p.m. 

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names House Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names Overnight Defense: White House suggests stripping Confederate base names in exchange for repealing tech liability shield | Biden faces mounting hurdles to rejoining Iran deal | Military coronavirus cases up MORE (D-Wash.), Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Trump, attorneys step up efforts to reverse election's outcome AOC, progressive Dems attack corporate greed during health care discussion MORE (D-Wash.), Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks What's behind the divisions over Biden's secretary of Labor? Alito to far-right litigants: The buffet is open MORE (D-Mass.) and Sen. Edward MarkeyEd MarkeyOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally UK moves up deadline to ban sales of new gasoline and diesel vehicles MORE (D-Mass.), will speak at a Ploughshares Fund forum on “Transforming National Security: Nuclear Policy for a New Era” at 3 p.m.

U.S. Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach will speak with reporters at a George Washington University event at 3 p.m.

 

ICYMI

– The Hill: Pentagon watchdog: Taliban has conducted 'small number' of attacks on US-led coalition

– The Hill: Former COVID-19 crisis planner: Don't expect 'military miracle' on vaccine distribution

– The Hill: Sea-launched interceptor destroyed mock ICBM in test, Pentagon says

– The Hill: Iran warns of 'crushing' response after report Trump mulled military strike

– The Hill: Trump senior advisers dissuaded president from military strike on Iran: report

– Stars and Stripes: Pentagon plan calls for pulling all troops from Somalia

– Defense News: Formal NDAA talks to begin under shadow of Confederate renaming issue