President Donald Trump plans to withdraw more US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq to bring a few thousand more service people home, but still fails to deliver on his promise to end America's "forever wars".
With just two months in office, the Trump administration is rushing to end the decades-long fighting he has constantly mocked. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller confirmed several reports in a briefing on Tuesday that the US will drop from around 4,500 to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and from over 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq. The government also wants to pull out all 700 members of the service currently fighting in Somalia.
Miller said the Pentagon is following Trump's instructions and that the drawdown “is in line with our established plans and strategic goals, which are supported by the American people, and is not to be equated with a change in US policy or goals. In addition, the president's decision is based on the continued collaboration with his national security cabinet over the past few months. “The incumbent Pentagon boss left the meeting room without asking any questions.
The withdrawal is slated to come by January 15 – just five days before President-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office. A senior Afghan official who was not empowered to speak publicly told me "we have not yet been officially notified of a drawdown".
Just minutes after Miller's comments, echoed by National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien, several missiles struck near the US embassy in Baghdad.
This doesn't make it easier for critics of the plan to hear the announcement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, usually an ally of the president, said Monday that "the aftermath of an early American exit from Afghanistan" would likely be worse than President Obama's 2011 withdrawal from Iraq that led to the rise from ISIS and a new round of global terrorism. “And on Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that“ the price for leaving too early or uncoordinated could be very high ”.
But it seems that the withdrawals are proceeding anyway. They will have serious repercussions on the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, made even more complicated by the hasty slapdash nature of the drawdown.
"It's hard to imagine a less responsible retreat," said Jason Dempsey, a former army infantry officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What the withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq would mean
Let's start with Iraq: Experts I spoke to said the withdrawal of around 500 US troops from Iraq, which will still leave 2,500 in the country, won't change much. The US is there to train, assist and share information with Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS and some Iranian-backed militias. While a smaller force makes the job harder, analysts said those who stay could still get the job done.
After all, the US military is now able to conduct operations with an ever decreasing number of service members in this country. "This process of downgrading the US military footprint has been going on for some time," said Randa Slim, Iraq expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, on the other hand, could have a greater impact.
US forces are in Afghanistan for two reasons. The first is to “train, advise and support” Afghan security forces together with NATO allies in order to repel the Taliban. The second is to counter terrorist threats emanating from the country by groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
With 2,500 soldiers, the US must categorically abandon the training mission and focus exclusively on counter-terrorism, said Jonathan Schroden, an expert on America's military efforts in Afghanistan at the CNA think tank in Washington, DC. He said that number is "basically the word" for what is needed to fight terrorists in the country, which means that not many service members would be left to help Afghans in their fight.
However, the U.S. military has been providing remote assistance to Afghan troops and police forces in recent months due to the coronavirus, Schroden said. It is therefore possible that the departing Americans may still be providing similar aid while stationed in the United States or elsewhere, such as in the Middle East or Europe.
There is one more complication: what to do with all the weapons and equipment the US military has in Afghanistan? Schroden told me that most of the weapons and vehicles can be shipped in planes and trucks until mid-January. But the things that the US doesn't have enough time to remove – including delicate computer systems, refrigerators, generators, and even entire military bases – need to be destroyed so they might not get into enemy hands.
Finally, there is a bigger political question: what does leaving the American diplomatic pact with the Taliban mean? The agreement, which both parties signed earlier this year, said all US troops would have to leave by May 2021, provided conditions in the country are relatively peaceful and the Taliban have confirmed the end of the deal, which will allow peace talks to begin Involves with the Afghan government and does not attack international forces.
These peace talks began in September but are not going very well – not least because Taliban fighters have stepped up their attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians across the country in recent months.
Dempsey, the former infantry officer now at the center for a think tank for new American security, said the withdrawal of more U.S. troops from the country while these negotiations continue could undermine Kabul's negotiating position and encourage even more Taliban attacks . "Giving away any leverage you have on leaving is a pretty stupid way of doing it," he told me.
The question now is what Biden would do with the forces with which Trump wants to leave him. The president-elect has said he wants to keep at least some troops in Afghanistan to serve as an anti-terrorist force. It is therefore possible that he will not change anything when he takes office. "In a way, Trump gives him the strength that Biden has long advocated," said Schroden.
But the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan could change quickly later in Biden's presidency. For example, the Taliban could try again to take over the Afghan government by force, as they did in 1996. Or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq could launch a particularly deadly attack on US forces in that country. In such scenarios, Biden could decide to send more troops back to these countries to solve the problems at hand.
However, barring such occurrences, it is likely that a President Biden will keep the troop totals as he found them, at least in the near future.
Are you helping keep Vox free for everyone?
Millions of people rely on Vox to understand how Washington policy choices, from health care to unemployment to housing, can affect their lives. Our work is well-sourced, research-oriented, and thorough. And that kind of work requires resources. Even after the economy recovers, advertising alone will never be enough to support it. If you've already contributed to Vox, thank you. If you don't, you help us keep our journalism free for everyone by making a financial contribution of just $ 3 today.