President Donald Trump will sharply reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, the Pentagon has announced, stopping short of a full withdrawal from America’s longest war.
Trump’s decision to limit himself to a partial withdrawal was first reported by Reuters on Monday and triggered a rebuke from senior Republicans 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 that will reduce troop levels there from 3000 to 2500.
“By January 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2500 by that same date,” Miller told reporters.
“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in US policy or objectives.”
Moments later, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned against any major changes in US defence or foreign policy in the next couple of months – including any precipitous troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Trump is due to leave office on January 20 after losing this month’s presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden. He has launched legal challenges to vote counts in some swing states which he says were fraudulent but legal experts give him little chance of success.
The top Republican on the House of Representatives armed services committee, Mac Thornberry also slammed the troop cut as a “mistake”.
US and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al-Qaeda.
It was those ties that triggered US military intervention in 2001 following the al-Qaeda September 11 attacks on the United States. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan.
Some US military officials had been urging Trump to keep US troop levels about 4500 for now.
But the withdrawal stops short of his pledge on October 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!”
The withdrawals could hand Biden a new set of challenges when he takes office on January 20.
Taliban militants, fighting against the US-backed government in Kabul, 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.