WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump vowed that he will sharply reduce the number of US forces deployed in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday, but did not commit to a full withdrawal from the country’s longest war after facing fierce criticism from at home and abroad.
Trump’s decision to limit himself to a partial withdrawal was first reported by Reuters on Monday but still triggered a rebuke from senior Republicans and Democrats who fear it will undermine security and hurt fragile peace talks with the Taliban.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who Trump installed last week after abruptly firing Mark Esper, confirmed the Afghan drawdown and also outlined a modest withdrawal of forces from Iraq to reduce troop levels from 3,000 to 2,500.
“By January 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date,” Miller told reporters.
About the same time, the top Senate Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, cautioned against any major changes in US defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months, including any precipitous troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It is extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes in regard to defense or foreign policy,” McConnell, who opposed a pullout, told reporters.
Trump is due to leave office on January 20 after losing this month’s presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden. Critics slammed Trump for timing the withdrawal to his own calendar as opposed to some kind of breakthrough in Afghanistan that would justify a major drawdown.
Biden’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s troop cuts.
The top Republican on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, also slammed the troop cut as a “mistake,” as did other prominent Republicans and Democrats.
The top Democrat on the committee, however, Representative Adam Smith, came out in support of the move — even as he cautioned that it needed to “be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region.”
But those plans have yet to be hammered out in detail, officials say, leaving questions unanswered about which troops to withdraw and the impact on a mission that ranges from advising and supporting Afghan forces to carrying out counter-terrorism strikes against al Qaeda and Daesh militants.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, said it was concerning that Trump’s withdrawal was being carried out without close coordination with NATO and that a hasty withdrawal risks making Afghanistan a platform for terrorism once again.
Al Qaeda concerns
US and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by the insurgents.
Some US military officials had been urging Trump to keep US troop levels at around 4,500 for now.
The withdrawal stops short of his pledge on Oct. 7, when Trump said on Twitter.
“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”
That threat had alarmed US military officials, US allies and lawmakers, who had fiercely opposed an abrupt, unilateral pullout.
Rick Olson, a former US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that the remaining 2,500 troops still give the United States some leverage in advancing peace efforts, but “it would have been better to have left them at 4,500.”
“Zero would have been truly awful, while 2,500 is maybe okay, but it’s probably not very stable,” he said. “I would say 2,500 is probably stable as long as the US-Taliban peace holds. But that may not happen because the Taliban have not done a reduction in violence, as they committed to do.”
Ronald Neumann, a former US ambassador to Kabul, cautioned that “if we are pulling out faster than the withdrawal schedule, there’s no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate.”
The withdrawals could hand Biden a new set of challenges when he takes office.
Taliban have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw US troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.
Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, called that violence the “greatest obstacle to moving forward with the peace process.”