President Trump checked off a key campaign promise Wednesday with a major drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq and an even greater reduction in Afghanistan coming soon, but skeptics say the moves reflect U.S. political imperatives and not the chaos and violence both countries are likely to face down the road.
The announcements were made less than two months before Election Day and gave Mr. Trump a valuable political asset. The commander in chief is able to claim he is following through on a vow to wind down “endless wars” and can remind voters of Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Obama administration’s inability to contain the rise of the Islamic State or to secure an elusive peace deal in Afghanistan.
Confirmation that the U.S. will reduce its troop level in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 came on the same day that Mr. Trump was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as the only president in the past 39 years who didn’t start a war or get the U.S. into an armed conflict.
“End endless wars — we hear that often,” said White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. “Not too often do we see it actually done.”
But the president is making the move amid deep political and military uncertainty in both theaters. A new Iraqi government is struggling to control powerful Iran-allied Shiite militias while preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State group. The U.S.-backed Kabul government has not even begun formal peace talks with the Taliban insurgency and faces unchecked factions of al Qaeda and ISIS still operating on its territory.
Aides said the president also will press ahead with a troop reduction in Afghanistan in the coming days. The U.S. has about 8,500 troops in Afghanistan, down from about 13,000 at the beginning of the year. The president said this week that the number will be cut to 4,000 to 5,000.
In Iraq, Pentagon leaders say the drawdown stems from two factors: the administration’s aggressive war against the Islamic State’s physical caliphate during the early days of the Trump presidency and a robust effort to train and equip Iraqi security forces. Those efforts, military officials argue, reduce the need for American boots on the ground.
“This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces’ increased ability to operate independently,” Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, said Wednesday during a speech in Iraq.
“The U.S. decision is a clear demonstration of our continued commitment to the ultimate goal,” he added, “which is an Iraqi Security Force that is capable of preventing an ISIS resurgence and of securing Iraq’s sovereignty without external assistance. The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant.”
The U.S. rationale in Afghanistan is similar, though there are key differences. The administration this year struck an agreement with the Taliban, offering troop drawdowns in exchange for a commitment that the radical group — which was in charge when Osama bin Laden planned and executed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 — will halt attacks on America and work to ensure outside jihadi groups can no longer operate in the country.
The deal also lays out a framework for direct talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, which are expected to start imminently. The hope, American officials have said, is that the two sides can negotiate a lasting cease-fire that reduces the need for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and finally brings stability to the country.
Gen. McKenzie told reporters later Wednesday that “we’re on a glide slope to be at 4,500 [troops] by the November time frame.”
He said the reduced force would still “be able to accomplish the core tasks that we want to accomplish.”
While saying the U.S. military does not want to be an occupying force in Afghanistan, the general added, “We do have strategic interests, vital interests, that compel us to be certain that these entities, such as al Qaeda and ISIS, can’t be guests there to attack the United States.”
But some specialists say heavy clouds hang over both countries, with governments that have not proved they are up to the task without heavy U.S. and foreign help. While Mr. Trump may notch a win in the political column for November, critics say he is risking a long-term error that may spark a terrorist revival across the Middle East and force American forces back into the region.
Some of Mr. Trump’s fellow conservatives in the national security field are particularly scathing.
“Trump’s national security doctrine is based entirely on wishful thinking,” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “He’s become like Jimmy Carter on steroids. He wants withdrawal, and his top aides realize their jobs mean making it happen.
“The Taliban peace deal was doomed by Taliban insincerity. Trump wanted a withdrawal and was willing to give sworn enemies whatever it took and ignore any violations to get and keep a deal. What has resulted is a Taliban and al Qaeda resurgence,” Mr. Rubin said.
The AEI analyst said the Iraq drawdown is no better strategically.
“U.S. troops aren’t in direct combat, but their presence is crucial both to preventing an Islamic State resurgence and Iranian-backed militia mischief,” Mr. Rubin said. “Sometimes, a small investment now forestalls a much larger cost down the line.”
While the Islamic State is a shell of the territory-holding “caliphate” it used to be, military commanders fear that a second wave of the extremist group could emerge unless the U.S. and its allies undertake a sweeping deradicalization effort in Syria and elsewhere.
Still, some prominent Republicans argue that the administration’s Iraq plan could work.
“Due to conditions on the ground I support [Mr. Trump‘s] decision to draw down to 3,000 American troops in Iraq,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has often opposed Mr. Trump on foreign policy moves, said in a Twitter post.
“The residual U.S. force, combined with Iraqi security forces and other partner nations, should be sufficient to prevent reemergence of ISIS and provide continued stability for Iraq — both of which are in our national security interests,” he said.
By the numbers
But the vagaries of Middle East politics have scrambled Mr. Trump’s determination to cut the size and expense of American forces abroad.
Critics note that the Pentagon under Mr. Trump has actually sent more troops to the region than have been brought home since 2017. While Mr. Trump has cut the number of forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the administration has sent thousands of troops to bases in the Middle East as a warning to Iran and to protect allies such as Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. and Iran came to the verge of all-out war this year after an American airstrike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Tehran retaliated by launching missiles at a U.S. base in Iraq. The Pentagon refuses to release exact, official troop counts in hot spots around the world, but the number of troops deployed or redeployed to counter Iran over the past two years seems to outnumber the forces Mr. Trump has brought back.
“When Trump claims he’s bringing troops ‘home’ from Iraq, ask how many American forces are deployed in the Middle East,” Brett McGurk, who served as the State Department’s envoy in the fight against the Islamic State from 2015 to 2018 and is now a sharp critic of the president, said in a Twitter post. “When he hailed pulling [1,000] troops out of Syria, for example, he sent another 14,000 troops elsewhere in the region.”
Ben Rhodes, who was a national security aide to President Barack Obama, called the move “election-year theatrics.” Mr. Rhodes is now a chair at National Security Action, an advocacy group that describes its mission as “restoring American leadership” and reversing what it says is the damage done by Mr. Trump’s policies.
The group includes a host of foreign policy heavyweights who are advising the Biden campaign.
“Trump has sent another 20,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East, escalated U.S. support for the war in Yemen, cut a crummy deal with the Taliban and left us on the brink of war with Iran,” Mr. Rhodes said in a Twitter post. “Don’t fall for pre-election theatrics.”
Those comments suggest the Biden campaign will attack the notion of bringing troops home as an exaggeration at best or an all-out lie at worst.
But the president, who has faced fresh controversies this month over his relations with the military brass and private comments allegedly disparaging the troops, has made clear he will use the drawdowns in his pitch to voters during the home stretch of the campaign.
“We kept America out of new wars, and we’re bringing our troops back home,” the president told campaign supporters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Tuesday night. “We’re bringing them back home from all of these faraway places. We spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and what do we get out of it?”
Some liberal groups offered faint praise to Mr. Trump’s withdrawals and criticism that he didn’t go further.
Defense Priorities, a Washington advocacy group that has long called for scaling back U.S. military missions, grudgingly called the White House announcements “tardy and insufficient but good news.”
Defense Priorities Policy Director Benjamin H. Friedman said the U.S. military had largely achieved its security objectives in Iraq and that the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan does not need the heavy combat troop deployment now there. He said Mr. Trump’s moves reflected the American public’s impatience with U.S. wars that had dragged on for years and even decades.
“Even if this push to wind down overly ambitious, unnecessary wars is an effort to win votes in November, then we should be grateful to live in a democracy still functional enough to operate based on the interests and wishes of the American people,” Mr. Friedman said.
Just hours before the Pentagon confirmed the Afghanistan drawdown, a roadside bombing in the capital of Kabul killed 10 people and wounded 31, including the country’s first vice president. Taliban officials quickly denied they were behind the attack.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.