- The Washington Times
Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Pentagon on Tuesday forged ahead with President Trump’s plan to dramatically cut America’s military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq, brushing aside objections from lawmakers at home and top officials abroad while signaling the U.S. accepts that after nearly two decades of war it cannot fully eradicate Islamist terror groups from the region.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller confirmed the Pentagon will reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each by Jan. 15 — five days before presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden is expected to take the oath of office. America currently has 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and about 3,000 in Iraq, and both deployments date back to the early 2000s.

The announcement met with wildly different reactions on Capitol Hill, where some Republicans and Democrats said they believe the Pentagon can responsibly cut its footprint while also keeping a lid on terrorism. But other lawmakers of both parties eviscerated the moves and cast them as irresponsible, short-sighted and dangerous at a time when terror groups remain undefeated in both conflicts.

Even as the Pentagon was outlining the cuts, Iraqi officials announced that four rockets had been fired into Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, landing barely two football fields away from the U.S. Embassy compound. A child was killed and at least five were injured in the attack, Iraqi officials said.

The scrambled reactions in Washington underscores how fundamentally Mr. Trump’s campaign against “endless wars” has transformed U.S. politics and shifted attitudes toward America’s military role in the world.

Mr. Miller maintained that the broad U.S. policies in the Middle East will not change as a result of the drawdowns, and he warned al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Iranian proxy groups in Iraq, or any other American foe to not take the move as a sign of weakness. He also said Washington’s commitment to peace and governmental stability in both countries remains iron-clad.

“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives,” he said during a press conference at the Pentagon. “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.”

Mr. Miller and other Pentagon officials also went to great lengths Tuesday to reiterate that Mr. Trump made the final decisions after extensive consultations with military leaders and members of his national security team.

But it was Washington’s worst-kept secret that many in the Pentagon, including commanders in the field, opposed the move. For example, Mr. Miller’s predecessor, former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, reportedly penned a recent memo warning that security conditions on the ground do not warrant a troop drawdown in Afghanistan, with power-sharing talks with the radical insurgent Taliban having barely gotten off the ground.

Mr. Trump fired Mr. Esper last week with no explanation.

Despite some speculation in the press, there was no announcement of a similar drawdown Tuesday in Somalia, where the U.S. is conducting an air war against the al-Shabab terror group and training Somali government forces. Several hundred American troops are stationed in the country.

Adjusting expectations

On Afghanistan, officials seemed to adjust expectations away from the total eradication of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda toward a more limited effort to keep in check the jihadist movement that planned the Sept. 11 attacks from Afghanistan, prevent terror groups from harming the U.S. and its allies, and impede their ability to recruit and train new members.

“Al Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for decades and the reality is we’d be fools to say they’re going to leave tomorrow,” a senior Defense Department official told reporters on a conference call Tuesday, while insisting the U.S. could still carry out it military mission with a reduced force.

The Trump administration earlier this year struck a deal with the Taliban that sets up a rough timetable for U.S. withdrawal, conditioned on Taliban guarantees Afghanistan will never again become a home base for terrorist groups and that it would negotiate a peace deal with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. Tuesday’s announcement accelerates that schedule, even as some U.S. military commanders argue the Taliban has yet to fulfill its promises.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly argued U.S. forces are playing a “policing role” in the Afghan conflict, but recent Pentagon assessments have warned that al Qaeda and the Islamic State both retain a presence in Afghanistan, particularly in remote border regions near Pakistan.

Faced with that reality, leading international officials fear that the U.S. may be handing al Qaeda a golden opportunity. In his own blunt statement Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said a premature withdrawal of the U.S. and allied forces could lead to a bloody outcome.

“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” he said Tuesday. “But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high. Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

Mr. Miller said he spoke to Mr. Stoltenberg and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the troop cuts on Tuesday, and he said that all parties agreed to continue working toward stability in the region. America’s partners in the U.S.-led NATO Resolute Support initiative in Afghanistan, officials said, remain committed to their mission.

Mixed reactions

Back at home, reactions were all over the map. Critics mostly singled out the Afghanistan decision and cast doubt on whether the Taliban can be trusted to fully break with al Qaeda.

“I believe that these additional reductions of American troops from terrorist areas are a mistake,” said Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. ” … The Taliban has done nothing — met no condition — that would justify this cut.”

Defense officials would not specifically lay out what conditions they believe have been met by the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying only that the troop cuts won’t hurt U.S. national security. The Taliban in recent weeks has ramped up its attacks on Afghan security forces, necessitating more U.S. airstrikes to keep the insurgent group from capturing key territory.

Some high-profile Democrats also blasted the move and said it underscores the chaos that will mark the twilight of Mr. Trump’s term and leave presumed incoming President Biden with a foreign policy mess to clean up.

“We need to bring our troops home, but we must do so as part of a strategy that does not jeopardize the safety of Americans in the U.S. and abroad,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat. “There was no doubt the final days of this administration would be tumultuous, but the haphazard nature of President Trump’s decision will harm our national security and jeopardize countless American, Afghan, and Iraqi lives.”

But other influential members of both parties echoed the Pentagon’s thinking, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat and frequent critic of the administration.

“After speaking with the acting secretary this morning, I believe reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision,” Mr. Smith said in a statement. “At the same time, this reduction must be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region.”

He added that “ultimately it is up to the Afghans to find a sustainable path to peace.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said he also spoke with top defense officials and believes the new posture meets the “mission of protecting the American people from terrorist attacks.”

While Mr. Biden has joined Mr. Trump in denouncing involving U.S. troops in “forever wars,” there are signs officials in Kabul are hoping he puts the brake on the U.S. military exit when he takes office.

“We understand there’s not going to be U-turn on the U.S. side on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan,” said Nargis Nehan, a former minister under Mr. Ghani, told The New York Times in a recent interview. “But under the leadership of the Biden administration, we hope and believe that it’s going to be done with a much more responsible strategy in comparison to the Trump administration.”

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