United States military officials expect President Donald Trump to order a further withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, US media outlets reported on Monday.
CNN reported that the Pentagon issued a “warning order” to commanders to begin planning to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by January 15.
There are currently approximately 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 troops in Iraq. Iraq, too, is expected to see a withdrawal to 2,500.
A NATO official also cited expectations of a 1,500 to 2,000 troop decrease in Afghanistan, Reuters News Agency reported.
Trump fired his defence secretary, Mark Esper, and appointed other top Pentagon officials last week after long-standing concerns that his priorities were not being dealt with urgently enough at the Department of Defense.
They include ending the 19-year-old Afghan engagement by the Christmas holiday in December, an ambitious target that opponents of the country’s longest war welcomed.
On October 7, Trump said on Twitter, “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”
We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 7, 2020
But a senior Republican senator warned that a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan could harm US allies and help its adversaries.
“There’s no American who does not wish the war in Afghanistan against terrorists and their enablers had already been conclusively won … But that does not change the actual choice before us now. A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight – delight – the people who wish us harm”, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a Senate floor speech, without directly criticising Trump.
US and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban fighters and persistent Taliban links to al-Qaeda.
It was those ties that triggered US military intervention in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaeda carried out. Tens of thousands of Afghans, and thousands of American and allied troops, have died in the conflict in Afghanistan since then.
Some US military officials, citing counterterrorism priorities in Afghanistan, have privately urged Trump against going to zero at this point and want to keep troop levels at about 4,500 for now, Reuters reported.
The White House did not immediately comment on the media reports.
Security personnel and onlookers stand at the site of a blast along the roadside in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province on November 12, 2020 [Noor Mohammad/AFP]National security adviser Robert O’Brien already raised the possibility of a withdrawal, saying last month the US would go down to 2,500 by early 2021, in comments overshadowed by Trump’s Christmas timeline.
Regardless of what Trump might do, the Taliban, which is fighting against the US-backed government in Kabul, has called on the US to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw US troops by May, subject to certain security guarantees.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, in a message to the US armed forces released during the weekend, echoed Trump’s desire to end US overseas engagements by saying, “It’s time to come home.” But he did not offer a timetable and stressed the need to finish the fight against al-Qaeda.
The Taliban harboured al-Qaeda’s leaders and the US special envoy for Afghanistan said the Taliban had not fulfilled their February accord commitment to breaking ties with al-Qaeda.
“We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish,” wrote Miller, a former Green Beret and counterterrorism official.