US President Donald Trump – now in the final two months of his administration – recently made the decision to order a significant troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. The move received negative reactions from members of Congress with some of the president’s own party who believe it will make America less safe.
The Withdrawal Leaves Biden with a Big Challenge
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced the move on Tuesday with a deadline of Jan. 15 – a mere five days before President-Elect Joe Biden assumes office. Reducing the size of America’s ground force in Afghanistan and Iraq could add an extra challenge for Biden who will be forced to deal with the consequences.
When Biden walks into the Oval Office on Jan. 20, he will confront a lengthy list of tasks. The future president has already begun surrounding himself with advisors to essentially roll back everything Trump has upended over the past four years – from ending the Muslim ban to stopping the US-Mexico border wall – but now he will have to contend with a changed Middle Eastern front as well.
Biden’s Experience Could Prove Crucial
Biden left the role of vice-president in January 2016 with the US conflict in the region having already lasted 14 years. Under the Obama administration, Biden was involved in decisions about the US military’s presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was there when Osama bin Laden was killed by US special operators and witnessed the changed nature of America’s fight overseas, from boots on the ground to a more drone and intelligence-focused approach.
Biden’s late son Beau even spent a year in Iraq while serving in the Delaware National Guard. Suffice to say, the incoming president is highly knowledgeable about the situation in the Middle East.
Trump’s Decision Undercuts US Mission-Readiness
Trump’s troop withdrawal could undercut the US missions abroad and risk throwing an already delicate situation more off-balance. Although Biden did advocate for troop reductions as vice-president, he was in favor of keeping the necessary forces to repel terrorists, as Bloomberg reported.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have now regained enough power to force the US to cut a peace deal. However, the extremist group still poses significant security risks to US forces and especially to Afghans, and appears far from ratifying an accord with the Afghan government.
When Biden returns to the White House, he might have to send more troops back in, thereby making him look like the bad guy compared to Trump who ordered them to come home. Conditions on the ground in the Middle East have slowly reverted as Washington has downscaled its involvement.
Republicans Disagree with Trump
“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R–Tx. “As long as there are threats to Americans and American national security in the world, the U.S. must be vigilant, strong, and engaged in order to safeguard our people and fulfill our duty under the Constitution.”
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R–Ky., similarly warned against the move.
“A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” McConnell said. “The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism. It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”
Thornberry and McConnell – who both hail from the president’s own party – are supported in their views by numerous senior military leaders, according to US News & World Report.
“I believe it’s political. There was no tactical, operational or strategic merit to doing this,” said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, former commander of the allied coalition in Afghanistan.” We question whether this was to fulfill a campaign promise or to foreclose options for the Biden administration. There’s no merit to this. None.”
Why Was Sec Def Mark Esper Fired?
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper disagreed with Trump’s withdrawal decision as well and it was his difference of opinion that likely became the final straw that led to him being fired. Esper also reportedly informed the Trump administration that no leaders in the Pentagon supported the move.
Esper and other US military leaders wanted to see more of a commitment from the Taliban before reducing the number of deployed troops. Instead, Trump is pushing a fast withdrawal leaving only 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan and another 2,500 in Iraq. The rapid withdrawal will leave little incentive for the Taliban to uphold their end of a peace deal with the US.
In addition to making it less likely the Taliban will fulfill the peace terms, less US forces will make the job harder for those who are left behind. They will find it more difficult to recruit informants and train local forces. That is on top of the added security risk that accompanies a weakened military presence.
NATO publicly appealed to Washington to cancel its planned withdrawal.
“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 organise attacks on our homelands. And ISIS could rebuild in Afghanistan the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq,” said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General.
With less US forces, NATO could be forced to amplify its presence in the region. The American pullout will undermine the alliance’s efforts since 2001 to eradicate terrorism by essentially ceding control and throwing in the towel.