The US military has met its goal of reducing the number of soldiers in Afghanistan to about 2,500 by Friday, a withdrawal that appears to violate a last-minute congressional prohibition.
President Donald Trump, who ordered the reduction in November last year, said on Thursday that troop levels in Afghanistan had reached a 19-year low, although he did not mention the number.
Last February, his administration struck a deal with the Taliban to reduce US troops in phases and to go to zero by May 2021, although it is unclear how the new administration will proceed.
Acting US Defense Secretary confirmed the withdrawal in a statement on Friday.
“This force reduction is an indication of the United States’ continued support towards the Afghan peace process and our adherence to commitments made in both the U.S.-Taliban agreement and the U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Declaration. Moving forward, while the Department continues with planning capable of further reducing U.S. troop levels to zero by May of 2021, any such future drawdowns remain conditions-based.”
President-elect Joe Biden, who has advocated keeping a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan as a way to ensure that armed groups like al-Qaeda are unable to launch attacks on the United States, faces a number of questions on Afghanistan.
One is how and whether to proceed with further troop cuts.
In his brief statement, Trump alluded to his longstanding desire to get out of Afghanistan entirely.
“I will always be committed to stopping the endless wars,” he said, referring to the US wars that have dragged on in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq for much of the period since 2003.
Although senior military officials had cautioned against speedy troop reductions in Afghanistan, acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced on November 17 that he was implementing Trump’s order.
As a result, military commanders scrambled to pull more than 1,500 soldiers out of the country in the last few weeks.
At Trump’s order, commanders also cut US troop levels in Iraq to 2,500 from about 3,000 in the same period.
The Afghanistan decision was seen by some as unnecessarily complicating the decision-making of the incoming administration.
Trump at the time had refused to acknowledge that he had lost the election and would be ceding to Biden on January 20.
Some in Congress, including fellow Republicans, opposed Trump’s decision.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress two weeks ago, the Pentagon was explicitly forbidden to use money from this year’s or last year’s budget on reducing the number of soldiers below 4,000 – or below the number that was in the country the day the bill was finalised, which was January 1.
Trump vetoed the measure, but the House and the Senate voted to override his veto.
The Pentagon has not yet fully explained how it squares its continued withdrawal with the legal prohibition.
In response to questions about this, the Pentagon issued a written statement saying: “DoD will adhere to all statutory provisions of the FY21 National Defense Authorization Act, to include those in Section 1215 that impact the ongoing drawdown in Afghanistan.”
It said it has been working with the National Security Council “on the most efficient means to ensure consistency amidst an anterior drawdown already occurring across Afghanistan, and in a manner that continues to ensure the safety of US personnel”.
The defence legislation provides two conditions under which the Pentagon could get around the prohibition – a presidential waiver or a report to Congress assessing the effect of a further pullout on the US counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan and the risk to US troops there.
As of Thursday, the Pentagon had met neither of those conditions.
The prohibition on completing the pullout put the Pentagon in a bind, coming weeks after it had begun the withdrawal, which involved a large logistical effort to remove equipment as well as troops.
Because of less-than-transparent military procedures for counting troops in Afghanistan, it is possible that the figure of 2,500 may be fudged.
The main reason for concern about a too-quick troops withdrawal is what the Pentagon sees as continued high levels of Taliban violence against the Afghan government.
Some US officials have questioned the wisdom of fully withdrawing, in accordance with the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, if violence remains high.
The Trump administration has also pushed rival Afghan sides to hold talks for lasting peace in the country. Since September, several rounds of talks have been conducted but not much headway has been made.
The US-Taliban agreement signed in the Qatari capital Doha envisaged the withdrawal of US troops in exchange for security guarantees from the Afghan armed group, which has been waging a rebellion since it was toppled in a US-led invasion following September 11 attacks.
The US had accused the then Taliban regime of harbouring al-Qaeda fighters, including its leader Osama bin Laden.
Billions of dollars have been spent in the US’s longest war that saw killings of tens of thousands, an overwhelming majority of them Afghan civilians.
During Biden’s time as vice president, the US pushed their troops’ strength in Afghanistan to 100,000 in a failed bid to compel the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
When Trump took office four years ago there were about 8,500 soldiers in the country, and he raised it to about 13,000 later that year.
Last month, when he met Afghan officials in Kabul and Taliban representatives in Qatar, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he emphasised to both sides that to give fledgeling peace talks a chance, they must rapidly reduce levels of violence.
“Everything else hinges on that,” Milley told reporters.
During Milley’s visit, Army General Scott Miller, the top commander of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that the Taliban had stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and against roadways and other infrastructure.