President Donald Trump is expected to cut a significant number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a smaller number in Iraq by the final days of his presidency, U.S. officials said Monday. The plan would run counter to military commanders’ advice over the past year, while still falling short of Trump’s much-touted goal to end America’s long wars.
The decision comes just days after Trump installed a new slate of loyalists in top Pentagon positions who share his frustration with the continued troop presence in the war zones. But the expected plans would leave 2,500 troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, meaning that President-elect Joe Biden would be the fourth president to grapple with the still-smoldering conflicts launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
U.S. officials said military leaders were told over the weekend about the planned withdrawals and that an executive order is in the works but has not yet been delivered to commanders. Officials cautioned that there could always be changes, and Trump is known to make snap decisions based on media reports and online chatter. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
There are 4,500 to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan and more than 3,000 in Iraq.
As news broke about the plan, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill issued stark warnings about making any hasty exit from Afghanistan that could jeopardize the peace process and undermine counterterrorism efforts.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Trump administration has made tremendous headway against terrorist threats, but warned against a potentially “humiliating” pullout from Afghanistan that he said would be worse than President Barack Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and reminiscent of the U.S. departure from Saigon in 1975.
Rep. Michael McCaul, Republican leader on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said of the plans for Afghanistan, “We need to ensure a residual force is maintained for the foreseeable future to protect U.S. national and homeland security interests and to help secure peace for Afghanistan.”
Under the planned order, the troop cuts would be completed just five days before Biden takes office on Jan. 20. Military commanders have expressed less concern about the reduction in Iraq, where the Iraqi forces are better able to maintain their nation’s security.
Trump’s new Pentagon chief, Christopher Miller, hinted at the troop withdrawals over the weekend in a carefully worded message to the force.
"We remain committed to finishing the war that al-Qaida brought to our shores in 2001.” And he warned that “we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”
But Miller also made it clear that “all wars must end.”
“This fight has been long, our sacrifices have been enormous. and many are weary of war — I’m one of them,” he said. “Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
Miller clarified his message in another memo issued Monday evening by saying one of his goals is to end the current war in a “responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
Druing his confirmation hearing to lead the National Counterterrorism Center over the summer, Miller, now the acting secretary of defense, told senators of his feelings about prolonging the war: “It would be, in my view, the height of irresponsibility to leave this conflict for our children to fight.”
The accelerated withdrawal, however, goes against the longstanding advice from Trump’s military leadership, including Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, top U.S. commander for the Middle East. But officials suggested this week that commanders will be able to live with the partial pullout, which allows them to keep counterterrorism troops in Afghanistan and gives more time to remove critical equipment from the country.
McKenzie and others have repeatedly argued that a hasty withdrawal could undercut negotiations to finalize ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of Afghan society, including the current Afghan government. And they also warn that U.S. forces should remain in the country to keep Islamic State militants in check.
“I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president," Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NPR in an October interview when asked about dropping to 2,500.
The plan had been to reduce from about 8,000 troops down to 4,500 by early November, then reassess.
“And that’s still the order," former Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Military Times on Nov. 4, five days before his ouster. "The order is still, you know, we’ll go to 4,500, we’ll stop and we’ll assess the situation, or the Taliban meeting their end of the deal.”
Part of that deal has been a reduction in violence. Though no American troops have died in combat in Afghanistan since early this year, attacks on other entities, including against Afghan defense forces, have continued to be an issue.
“If not, then my recommendation would be ... don’t go further,” Esper said.
The administration, specifically National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, had already started speaking publicly in October about the next phase.
Esper had signaled that he didn’t support that move just yet.
“And those are the fights we’ll have privately right? The debates we’ll have privately, and I’ve taken a public position on that,” he said.
Days later, Esper was fired, replaced by Miller. In his first memo to the force, first reported by McClatchy, he specifically called out the Afghanistan war.
However, his comments did not outline whether he supported an accelerated withdrawal. Instead, he characterized the U.S. role in Afghanistan as it has been for years, transitioning from American-led combat operations to purely advising and assisting Afghan defense forces, against both the Taliban and ISIS.
"This is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role,” he wrote. “We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end.”
Biden has sounded less absolute about troop withdrawal. He has said some troops could stay in Afghanistan to focus on the counterterrorism mission. In response to a questionnaire before the election, he said, “Americans are rightly weary of our longest war; I am, too. But we must end the war responsibly, in a manner that ensures we both guard against threats to our homeland and never have to go back.”
The expected order, first reported by CNN, adds to what has been a litany of muddled White House and Pentagon messages on troops withdrawals from both Afghanistan and Iraq, only exacerbating what has been an emotional roller coaster for the troops and their families. Adding to the confusion: The Pentagon has historically failed to count up to hundreds of troops actually on the ground, including some special operations forces and personnel on temporary duty for only a few months. Often that is due to political sensitivities in those countries and in the U.S.
The Pentagon was already on track to cut troops levels in Afghanistan to about 4,500 by mid-November. U.S. military leaders have consistently said that going below that number must be based on conditions on the ground, including a measurable reduction in attacks by the Taliban on Afghan troops. And they insist they have not seen that yet.
America’s exit from Afghanistan after 19 years was laid out in a February agreement Washington reached with the Taliban. That agreement said U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan in 18 months, provided the Taliban honored a commitment to fight terrorist groups, with most attention seemingly focused on the Islamic State group’s affiliate in the country.
Military officials also have warned that there is a large amount of critical, classified equipment at bases in Afghanistan that needs to be removed, but it will take more time. And they also say that any full U.S. withdrawal needs to be coordinated with other coalition allies that have troops in the country.
The White House, however, issued a confusing series of statements about Afghanistan over the past month. Trump on Oct. 7 tweeted that “we should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.” When asked about those comments, O’Brien, his national security adviser, said Trump was just expressing a hope.
O’Brien, meanwhile, has said the number of troops in Afghanistan would drop to 2,500 by early next year. At the time, defense officials said they had not gotten orders to cut troops to 2,500. And they warned that withdrawing troops quickly could remove some incentive for the struggling peace talks.
According to the February agreement, the U.S. troop withdrawal next year is tied to the Taliban’s commitment to fight terror groups — such as the Islamic State — in the county, and is not linked to successful negotiations between the Taliban and government. The Islamic State group is seen as extremely dangerous and intent on targeting America and other Western interests.
The Taliban and Afghan government negotiators have been meeting for over a month in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar with little sign of progress. The Taliban, meanwhile, have staged near daily deadly attacks against Afghan forces.
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.