Majority Leader McConnell leads chorus of bipartisan, shocked opposition to the 11th hour order read by Acting Defense Secretary Miller.
President Trump’s new acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on Tuesday announced that the United States will draw down its forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 troops in each country by Jan. 15, just days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Miller’s Tuesday announcement ended several days of speculation and reporting that Trump would seek to accelerate drawdowns from the “endless wars” that he vowed to end as a presidential candidate in 2016. But defense officials declined to say whether the situation met any of the conditions that administration officials had previously said would allow a safe withdrawal.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has still not renounced al-Qaida — a key precondition for withdrawal in the U.S.-Taliban agreement inked last February. The insurgent group has also upped its attacks in recent months, with October seeing the highest civilian death toll in Afghanistan in over a year.
In his Pentagon remarks, Miller characterized the reductions as a “successful and responsible conclusion” to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq — even as defense officials detailing the announcement to reporters earlier in the day insisted that thousands of troops would remain to “carry out our mission with our allies and our partners.”
It was a jarring juxtaposition that appeared to be an effort to balance the political demands of a president eager to take credit for “ending” wars with the deep concerns of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“We owe this moment to the many patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice and their comrades who carry forward their legacy,” Miller said. “In light of these tremendous sacrifices, and with great humility and gratitude to those who came before us, I am formally announcing that we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces from those two countries.”
Miller caught himself after mistakenly saying that the United States would meet a withdrawal deadline of Jan. 15, “2001” — accidentally conflating 2021 with the year the Afghanistan conflict began.
The United States currently has roughly 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and about 3,000 in Iraq. Officials declined to address reports that Trump has also ordered the withdrawal of the roughly 700 special operators in Somalia.
Defense officials insisted earlier on Tuesday that the proper conditions had been met to allow the troop drawdowns without damaging U.S. national security or the ongoing mission to support Taliban-Afghan peace talks that are meant to end the war in Afghanistan. But they refused to answer repeated questions about which conditions had been met, and they declined to address a recent, classified memo from former Defense Secretary Mark Esper warning the White House that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan had not progressed enough to allow further troop cuts.
That memo, reported by the Washington Post, warned of the ongoing attacks by the Taliban, the risk that a rapid pull-out would endanger the remaining U.S. troops, potential damage to the ongoing peace negotiations and possible damage to alliances.
On Tuesday, officials speaking to Pentagon reporters effectively dismissed or abandoned major precepts of the February agreement with the Taliban. As recently as October, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told NPR that a U.S. withdrawal was conditioned on the Taliban reducing its violence and severing its ties with al-Qaida.
Yet asked specifically about the ongoing ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida, a defense official said, “Al-Qaida has been in Afghanistan for decades and the reality is we’d be fools to say they are going to leave tomorrow.”
“The solution in Afghanistan is to broker a power sharing or some form of agreement whereby the two…can live side-by-side in peace,” the official continued, referring to the current Afghan government and the Taliban. “One is not going to militarily defeat the other nor are we going to engage in a decades-long war to that end, which we will not meet. We feel this is the best decision to drive towards the peace agreement that we’ve been working on.”
Critics of Trump’s move say that the race to withdraw troops before Biden’s inauguration is based on raw politics, not best military advice. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, a combat veteran, called the announcement “a mistake” that is “unilaterally taking one of our best bargaining chips off the table — and getting nothing in return.”
Former military leaders also expressed concern that the move appeared counter to the administration's own stated goals, and could add to what critics describe as a growing international concern that the United States is not a reliable partner.
"I have great difficulty understanding how this decision supports the President's strategy to achieve a political reconciliation between the [Afghan government] and the Taliban," said retired Gen. Joseph Votel, the former head of U.S. Central Command, which commands American forces in the Middle East. "Does not seem to make a lot of sense that we would do this without more progress or concessions by the Taliban."
Even some of Trump’s staunchest allies say a precipitous withdrawal would allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terror groups wishing to carry out attacks on the United States, as it was leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“A rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight — delight — the people who wish us harm,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said from the Senate floor on Monday. “The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama's withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011."
The move also earned a swift rebuke from NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, who said Tuesday, “NATO went into Afghanistan after an attack on the United States to ensure that it would never again be a safe haven for international terrorists” and warned that the “price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”
Supporters of a full withdrawal argue that mission creep in Afghanistan has made the conflict unsustainable, and that fears Afghanistan will once again be used as a “safe haven” for terrorists are overblown. Other key Republican allies on Capitol Hill said on Tuesday that the partial withdrawal appropriately “reflected conditions on the ground.”
“I have been assured by Acting Secretary of Defense Miller and the president’s national security adviser, Ambassador O’Brien, that they are consulting with our allies, and that, with their plan, we will be able to carry out our mission of protecting the American people from terrorist attacks originating in Afghanistan, safeguarding Afghan gains and supporting our partners and allies,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement.
Some of that support crossed partisan lines. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a statement that “reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision.”
The defense official insisted that the announcement is in keeping with Trump’s June decision to reduce troops in Afghanistan to 4,500 by November and pull out all troops by next spring; and that it was made in “consultation” with his top military and civilian national security advisors both in the theater and in Washington.
Miller said that key leaders in Congress were informed, as was Stoltenberg and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, “who expressed his gratitude for every American service member who has fought for peace and strengthened the longstanding friendship between our countries.” Miller claimed that Ghani also “highlighted the caliber of our troops, which he noted has always been more important than the quantity.”
A statement from Ghani’s office said that the two leaders discussed “the peace process, strengthening mutual relations, and continued meaningful U.S. military support to the Afghan Security and Defense Forces.”
The defense official said that there are no plans to abruptly draw down to zero troops in either nation.
“At this point we are not going to zero because we are continuing on the president’s approach which he announced in June, which is to reduce troops to the number necessary to carry out the mission,” the official said.