The US government on Tuesday announced that the number of American troops stationed in Afghanistan will be cut by half by mid-January, drawing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats who warned that it would be a “mistake” and could imperil peace efforts in the country.
By January 15, five days before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the US, the number of American forces in Afghanistan will come down from the current level of 5,000 to 2,500. The number of soldiers in Iraq will also be reduced, from the existing 3,000 to 2,500.
The Trump administration’s decision comes as part of the Republican president’s much debated pledge to bring America’s “endless wars” to an end.
Citing US casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq – a total of 6,900 killed and 52,000 wounded – acting secretary of defence Christopher Miller told reporters at the department of defence, “I am formally announcing that we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces from those two countries.”
Miller was not accompanied at the announcement by Mark Milley, the chairman of joint chiefs of staff, who had earlier dismissed reports about troop reductions as speculation. Miller also did not refer to his predecessor Mark Esper’s objection to the cuts as conveyed to the White House in a confidential memo.
Robert O’Brien, the National Security Adviser, told reporters that Trump hoped “that they will all come home safely – and in their entirety” by May.
That was an unusual projection to make as president-elect Biden would be in charge then and it would be his administration’s decision. There was no word from Biden or his team yet on the troop withdrawals.
Criticism of the move came swiftly, and from both the parties. Even close Republican allies were outraged. “I think it’s extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes with regard to defence and foreign policy,” Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the US Senate, told reporters. “I think a precipitous drawdown in either Afghanistan or Iraq would be a mistake.”
Tammy Duckworth, a Democratic Senator who has served in Afghanistan and lost both her legs to combat wounds in Iraq, warned of adverse impact of the move on peace efforts. “We all want our troops to be brought home safely, but this announcement is a mistake. At a time when we are finally seeing serious peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Donald Trump is unilaterally taking one of our best bargaining chips off the table – and getting nothing in return.”
Intra-Afghan peace talks started in September as part of a conditions-based agreement signed by the United States with the Taliban in February. But they are currently stalled due to disputes procedural issues.
“Trump never paid much attention to advice of experts and is now just trying to do what he thinks his base wants,” said Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US and an expert on the region, at Hudson Institute, a think tank, referencing Trump’s campaign promise from 2016 to end “endless wars”.
“He sees (troop withdrawal from Afghanistan not as a national security problem to be resolved in a methodical manner, but just as a talking point at his rallies. Like many of his other decisions, this will not be without cost.”