Donald Trump is expected to issue a formal order drawing down US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 in each country by Jan. 15, a US defense official said, as the president works to deliver on his longtime pledge to exit from “endless wars.”
US Central Command has received an informal warning order, according to the official. The expected order, reported earlier Monday by CNN, would reduce troops from about 4,500 in Afghanistan and from about 3,000 in Iraq before Trump leaves office.
Trump’s deadline would come five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Pentagon officials didn’t immediately comment when asked about the drawdown.
But the planned drawdowns drew sharp criticism from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican, usually a staunch Trump ally, said on the Senate floor Monday that there’s little support in Congress for “simply walking away” from the conflicts.
“The consequences of a premature American exit” from Afghanistan “would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
The move comes after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and replaced other top officials at the Pentagon with loyalists last week. Esper sent a classified memo to the White House this month expressing concerns about additional troop cuts, the Washington Post has reported, citing two senior officials it didn’t identify.
In Kabul, Acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid told the Afghan parliament Tuesday there was no concern about the complete withdrawal of foreign troops.
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“I don’t see any clear indication that the US or NATO forces will fully withdraw the country,” Khalid said. “Some other countries in NATO are still considering whether to remain or leave,” he said, noting Afghan forces were in charge of 96% of operations across the country and only 4% of those need foreign air support.
The reduced troop level for Afghanistan is consistent with public statements last month by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, although it stops short of a tweet by Trump last month expressing an expectation that US troops there would be home by Christmas.
In a memorandum issued on Monday, the acting Defense secretary, Chris Miller, said his goal was to “bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
Until now, US officials have maintained that the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan must be “conditions-based,” in order to maintain pressure for Taliban forces to reach a peace accord with the Afghan government.
Miller, a former Green Beret and White House counterterrorism coordinator, said in a memo Friday to all Defense Department employees that “ending wars requires compromise and partnership.”
“We met the challenge; we gave it our all,” Miller said in the memo. “Now, it‘s time to come home.”
In Iraq, a reduction from about 5,200 troops was announced in September.
In January, Iraq’s parliament had voted to expel American forces amid the uproar after the US killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian general who oversaw his country’s foreign military operations, at Baghdad’s airport.