United States President Donald Trump will sharply reduce the number of US forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 before he leaves office, the Pentagon has announced.
The Pentagon also outlined a modest withdrawal of US forces in Iraq that will reduce troop levels from 3,000 to 2,500.
Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller said about 2,000 troops would be pulled out of Afghanistan by January 15 and 500 more would come back from Iraq, leaving 2,500 in each country.
The moves reflect 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 said.
The announcement came days after Trump fired former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had insisted on the need to maintain troop levels in Afghanistan to support the Kabul government while it negotiates a peace deal with the Taliban.
The drawdown will have less of an impact in Iraq, Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn explained, citing the number of US troops in Iraq that “has gone down to 3,000 as of September this year.”
#BREAKING: Acting secretary of defense Miller: Troops in #Iraq to be reduced to 2,500 by January 2021. This is a relatively minor drawdown compared to the reduction from 5,000 to 3,000 that already took place earlier this year.
— Simona Foltyn (@SimonaFoltyn) November 17, 2020
Al Jazeera’s White House correspondent Kimberly Halkett said the announcement was part of Trump’s attempt to “make good” on campaign promises made in 2016 to end “endless wars” and “preserve his legacy”.
However, the plans – which were first reported on Monday – stopped short of the complete withdrawal Trump had promised to carry out by Christmas.
The new plans will accelerate troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan in Trump’s final days in office, despite arguments from senior military officials in favour of a slower, more methodical pullout.
Halkett said the necessity and strategic values of the drawdowns are being questioned in DC: “This is going to be met a lot of criticism … it doesn’t please Pentagon officials; it doesn’t please lawmakers on Capitol Hill”.
Critics said the Afghan withdrawal will undermine fragile security in the nation and hurt the continuing peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters.
Halkett said it could put President-elect Joe Biden in the difficult position of considering redeploying troops to Afghanistan, even as the US faces economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and public opinion largely against the war.
Trump has refused to concede his election loss to Democrat Biden, who takes office January 20, just five days after the troop withdrawals are slated to finish.
Shortly after Miller’s announcement, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned against any major changes in US defence or foreign policy in the next couple of months – including significant troop reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill that “a precipitous drawdown in either Afghanistan or Iraq is a mistake,” although he did not directly criticise Trump.
Separately, Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said the president is keeping his promise to the American people to get US 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 made the announcement at the Pentagon.