New US Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller has announced that US troop strength will be reduced in Afghanistan and Iraq. The decision from President Donald Trump has been met with criticism and concern — even among some Republicans.
How Many Troops are Being Pulled from Afghanistan and Iraq?
On Trump’s orders, the US will reduce its troop strength in Afghanistan from around 4,500 soldiers to 2,500 soldiers by mid-January, while the number of soldiers in Iraq is set to be reduced by around 500 to 2,500 by January 15. Miller announced the reductions on Tuesday evening.
The decision marks an accelerated partial withdrawal of US troops before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on January 20.
Over the past few days, several media had reported about ongoing preparations for withdrawals. The Pentagon has kept a low profile on the number of troops currently stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, according to CNN, there are currently 4,500 American military members still in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq.
Trump’s Firing of Sec Def Esper and Appointment of High-Ranking Loyalists
The partial withdrawal follows Trump’s electoral defeat against Biden. Shortly thereafter, Trump released Secretary of Defense Mark Esper of his duties, which initiated the replacement of several high-ranking positions in the Pentagon with Trump supporters.
For example, former Army officer Douglas MacGregor was appointed senior advisor to Miller. MacGregor is known as a critic of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Esper, however, had insisted on maintaining a troop strength of 4,500 soldiers in Afghanistan.
Trump’s Promises to Bring the Troops Home
Trump had already promised to bring troops home in the 2016 election campaign. In particular, he pushed for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.The plans had led to criticism and concern from NATO and even among Trump’s Republican colleagues. It is feared that the extremist Islamic Taliban — who are currently holding peace talks with the Afghan government — will regain strength as a result of the troop reduction. According to US media reports, the President was recently increasingly frustrated with the pace of the withdrawal.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he expected all allies to keep their pledge to leave Afghanistan in a coordinated and orderly manner only when the time is right.
“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay longer than necessary,” stressed Stoltenberg. The price for leaving the country too quickly or in an uncoordinated manner could be very high, he added.
The Danger of Afghanistan Regaining its Role as a Terrorist Haven
Afghanistan threatens to become a haven for international terrorists planning attacks on NATO countries. In addition, the Islamic State (ISIS) group may be able to establish territory for their terror caliphate in the country to make up for what it lost in Syria and Iraq.
Leading Republicans in Congress have also warned against a premature withdrawal from the country.
“There is no American who does not wish that the war in Afghanistan against terrorists and their helpers had already been finally won,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “But that does not change the actual decision that lies ahead of us.” A swift withdrawal of US forces “would harm our allies and please those who wish us harm,” McConnell added.
The Longest War in American History
The war in Afghanistan is the longest in US history. American soldiers have been deployed in the country since 2001. After the September 11 of that year, US-led troops were sent to the Asian nation as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, with operations beginning in October.
At the end of February 2020, Washington signed an agreement with the Taliban which promises the gradual withdrawal of all US and NATO armed forces by the end of April 2021. The Taliban went on to commit to peace talks with the government in Kabul, which began in September. However, the process stalled because of a dispute over procedural issues.
Iraqi Rocket Attacks Greet Withdrawal Announcement
Shortly after the announcement of the withdrawal of troops, several rocket attacks near the US embassy were reported from the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The four rockets were reportedly fired from the east of the capital. The rockets reportedly hit the Green Zone, a highly secure government district which also houses the embassy of the United States and various other nations in Iraq.
Since October last year, almost 90 deadly rocket and bomb attacks have been carried out on foreign embassies, troops, and facilities in Iraq.