WASHINGTON — Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on Tuesday announced plans to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the decision fulfills President Donald Trump’s pledge to bring forces home even as Republicans and U.S. allies warn against a rash withdrawal.
The new plan will accelerate troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan in Trump's final days in office, despite arguments from senior military officials in favor of a slower, more methodical pullout. Trump has refused to concede his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, who takes office Jan. 20, just five days after the troop withdrawals are slated to finish.
Miller, who refused to take questions from reporters, said the plan will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from more than 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2,500. Miller added that the U.S. remains ready to respond if conditions deteriorate.
“If the forces of terror, instability, division and hate begin a deliberate campaign to disrupt our efforts, we stand ready to apply the capabilities required to thwart them,” he said in a roughly eight-minute statement to reporters in the Pentagon briefing room.
The withdrawal plan falls short of Trump’s oft-repeated vow to end America’s long wars. It also runs counter to his guidance that troop withdrawals be based on the conditions on the ground, not a date on the calendar.
In Afghanistan, in particular, military and defense leaders have consistently said the Taliban has not yet met requirements to reduce violent attacks against Afghan government forces. U.S. forces have remained in Afghanistan since they invaded in October 2001.
The decision has already received a cool reception from some Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, and a somewhat uncharacteristically blunt critique from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the president is keeping his promise to the American people to get U.S. troops out of war zones. “By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” O’Brien told reporters at the White House shortly after Miller made the announcement at the Pentagon.
“I want to reiterate that this policy is not new,” O’Brien said. “This has been the president’s policy since he took office.”
A series of sweeping changes at the Pentagon last week that started with the firing of Defense Secretary of Mark Esper saw Trump loyalists installed in influential. Knowledgeable sources told CNN's Jake Tapper last week that the White House-directed purge at the Defense Department may have been motivated by the fact that Esper and his team were pushing back on a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, which would be carried out before the required conditions on the ground were met.
The senior defense official claimed that "there is no reduction in capability" as a result of the drawdown, calling the reduction a "collaborative" decision while refusing to address a recent Pentagon memo that said conditions on the ground in Afghanistan did not warrant additional drawdowns.
Prior to his firing, Esper sent a classified memo to the White House asserting that it was the unanimous recommendation of the chain of command that the U.S. not draw down its troop presence in Afghanistan any further until conditions were met, sources familiar with the memo tell CNN.
The assessment from the chain of command — Esper, US Central Command leader Marine Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie and commander of NATO's mission in Afghanistan Gen. Austin Miller — stated that the necessary conditions had not been met. Others agreed, sources have told CNN.
Earlier on Tuesday, a newly released report from the Pentagon inspector general said the terrorist group al Qaeda is supportive of the Trump administration's plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as well the U.S. agreement with the Taliban, adding that the Taliban carried out attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel since it was signed.
"The DIA reported that al-Qaeda leaders support the agreement because it does not require the Taliban to publicly renounce al-Qaeda and the deal includes a timeline for the United States and coalition forces to withdraw —accomplishing one of al-Qaeda's main goals," the report said, referring to the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.
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