US announces further drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq before Biden takes office

Acting Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller announced Wednesday that the US will withdraw thousands more US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by Jan 15, 2021 - just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Miller said the withdrawal, which will leave approximately 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and roughly the same number in Iraq, “does not equate change” to US policies or objectives but provided no details about the plan and refused to answer questions following Tuesday’s appearance in the Pentagon briefing room.

Currently there are approximately 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 troops in Iraq.

A senior defence official said the announcement is “consistent” with what President Donald Trump has publicly announced earlier this year and is “consistent with his promise to the American People.”

But while the Pentagon appears ready to remove thousands more US troops from the Middle East, the move also suggests that Trump may fall short of fulfilling one of his core promises to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan before he leaves office.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, slammed the move as “a mistake” in a statement issued shortly after Miller’s announcement.

“I believe that these additional reductions of American troops from terrorist areas are a mistake. Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing - met no condition - that would justify this cut,” he said.

“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,” Thornberry added.

Clear opposition

Miller’s announcement comes one day after CNN reported US military commanders were anticipating that a formal order would be given by Trump to begin a further withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.

The news prompted criticism from several GOP lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not refer to Trump by name but voiced his clear opposition to a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, saying it would “hurt our allies.”

“We’re playing a limited - limited - but important role in defending American national security and American interests against terrorists who would like nothing more than for the most powerful force for good in the world to simply pick up our ball and go home,” he said in a speech from the Senate floor on Monday.

‘Would hurt our allies’

“There’s no American who does not wish the w*ar in Afghanistan against terrorists and their enablers had already been conclusively won,” he said.

“But that does not change the actual choice before us now. A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight - delight - the people who wish us harm.”

Pentagon overhaul

A series of sweeping changes at the Pentagon last week that started with the firing of Defence Secretary of Mark Esper saw Trump loyalists installed in influential positions.

Knowledgeable sources told CNN’s Jake Tapper last week that the White House-directed purge at the Defence Department may have been motivated by the fact that Esper and his team were pushing back on a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, which would be carried out before the required conditions on the ground were met.

The senior defence official claimed that “there is no reduction in capability” as a result of the drawdown, calling the reduction a “collaborative” decision while refusing to address a recent Pentagon memo that said conditions on the ground in Afghanistan did not warrant additional drawdowns.

Unanimous recommendation

Prior to his firing, Esper sent a classified memo to the White House asserting that it was the unanimous recommendation of the chain of command that the US not draw down its troop presence in Afghanistan any further until conditions were met, sources familiar with the memo tell CNN.

The assessment from the chain of command - Esper, US Central Command leader Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie and commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan Gen. Austin Miller - stated that the necessary conditions had not been met. Others agreed, sources have told CNN.

Earlier on Tuesday, a newly released report from the Pentagon inspector general said the terrorist group al Qaeda is supportive of the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as well the US agreement with the Taliban, adding that the Taliban carried out attacks on US and coalition personnel since it was signed.

“The DIA reported that al-Qaeda leaders support the agreement because it does not require the Taliban to publicly renounce al-Qaeda and the deal includes a timeline for the United States and coalition forces to withdraw—accomplishing one of al-Qaeda’s main goals,” the report said, referring to the Pentagon’s Defence Intelligence Agency.

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