The United States will significantly cut its troop presence in Afghanistan by January 15, just days before U.S. President Donald Trump leaves office in a move that could tie the hands of his successor, Joe Biden.
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced the drawdown on November 17, saying U.S. troops would be cut from 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan and would also be reduced by 500 in Iraq to 2,500.
“I am formally announcing that we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces from those two countries,” Miller said after news reports indicated the announcement was imminent.
He said it was consistent with established plans and was not a change in U.S. policy or objectives.
Biden's transition team did not comment on the announcement, but the president-elect has noted that his team is not receiving national-security briefings from Trump's team, which is customary during the transition to a new administration.
The decision comes as violence in Afghanistan is on the rise. In Iraq on November 17, four rockets fell in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, an Iraqi military statement said. The zone houses government buildings and foreign missions.
Miller said the decision reflects Trump's policy "to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion and to bring our brave service members home."
Miller, who was named to the post last week, said he had spoken with military commanders, members of Congress, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the move.
He said the United States would continue to stand with Ghani as his government works toward a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and would be ready to respond if conditions in Afghanistan or Iraq deteriorate.
But Stoltenberg warned that the military bloc could pay a heavy price for leaving Afghanistan swiftly in an uncoordinated fashion, and some of Trump's Republican allies in Congress also voiced concerns about sudden troop reductions.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky) on November 17 cautioned against any major changes in U.S. defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.
McConnell also warned that a rapid reduction of troops from Afghanistan would give extremists a propaganda victory and amount to abandoning partners. He suggested that the move would leave room for the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan and the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda to rebuild.
Under an agreement signed in February between the Taliban and the United States, foreign forces are to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for the Taliban committing to cut ties with Al-Qaeda and other international militant groups. But full implementation of that deal faces many hurdles amid a lack of progress in ongoing intra-Afghan peace negotiations in Qatar.
Trump campaigned on ending military involvement abroad but has not substantially reduced the U.S. military imprint overseas while increasing some operations to counter Iran.
Trump’s national-security adviser Robert O’Brien said the president is keeping his promise to the American people to get U.S. troops out of war zones.
“By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” O’Brien told reporters at the White House shortly after Miller announced the troop drawdown.
“I want to reiterate that this policy is not new,” O’Brien said. “This has been the president’s policy since he took office.”
Proponents of a U.S. military withdrawal point out the country has given much blood and treasure in engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 and 2003, respectively, and the United States has plenty of issues to address at home.