The Pentagon has announced it will reduce troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to the lowest levels since the earliest days of the wars in the two countries, in a withdrawal that would finish just before Joe Biden is sworn in as US president.
The drawdown, announced by Donald Trump’s newly-installed acting defence secretary, was ordered by the outgoing president despite opposition from some defence officials, who argued that instability in Afghanistan made such a retreat unwise.
The Trump administration has already reduced US troop levels in Afghanistan from 14,000 last year to 4,500, responding to Mr Trump’s promise to finish the “endless wars” of his predecessors. The new move would take force levels down to 2,500 in both Iraq and Afghanistan; there are currently 3,000 US troops in Iraq.
Although Mr Trump has long advocated troop withdrawals in the region, the manner and timing of the order has caused consternation in Washington foreign policy circles.
Two people briefed on the discussions told the Financial Times that the White House could order the withdrawal of troops from Somalia as well. A defence official said an announcement was possible by the end of the week.
The drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan is due to be completed by January 15, just five days ahead of Mr Biden’s inauguration. It was announced by Chris Miller, acting defence secretary, who replaced Mark Esper just last week in a Pentagon shake-up that resulted in several Trump loyalists being installed in influential senior positions.
Mr Miller, a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, welcomed the decision and paid tribute to Mr Trump’s “bold leadership”, saying the US wanted to finish “this generational war”.
Robert O’Brien, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, said the president hoped that all remaining troops would be home by May, when Mr Biden will be in office.
The US sent troops into Afghanistan in 2003 during the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks. The number of troops surpassed 100,000 after Barack Obama ordered a “surge”, which Mr Biden — then US vice-president — opposed.
Mr Biden has also promised to put a stop to what he has called the “endless” US wars, although he is expected to back a slower rate of reduction when he takes office in January.
Mr Miller said he had already spoken to key leaders in Congress as well as allies and partners abroad about the decision earlier on Monday. But some senior Republicans and allies also opposed the move, arguing conditions did not yet permit them.
Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House of Representatives armed services committee, criticised the order as a “mistake”, arguing reductions would undercut US peace negotiations with the Taliban.
The top Democrat on that House committee, however, supported Mr Trump’s decision.
“After speaking with the acting secretary this morning, I believe reducing our forward-deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision,” said Adam Smith, Democratic chairman of the House armed services committee, arguing it was up to Afghans to find a sustainable path to peace.
But it must be executed “responsibly and carefully”, he added.
Minutes after the troop reduction announcement, four rockets had hit Baghdad’s Green Zone, the secured enclave in the Iraqi capital which houses the US embassy. Iraqi military said three more had fallen in surrounding areas, killing one girl and injuring five more people.
Iraqi authorities have struggled to curb attacks on the Green Zone. The hail of rockets broke a roughly month-long pause in hostilities from Shia militia groups, which have deep ties to Iran and want American troops to leave Iraq.
The Taliban had agreed to stop attacking US troops and harbouring al-Qaeda as part of a deal in February to secure the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. The extremist group also agreed an end to the war with its counterparts in the Kabul government. Those talks have just begun, months behind schedule.
“[The] Taliban has done nothing — met no condition — that would justify this cut,” Mr Thornberry said in a statement.
One western diplomat in Washington said the timetable appeared to be dictated by politics rather than the reality on the ground.
“Any reductions that are not seen to be driven by conditions on the ground will chip away at allies’ confidence,” said the diplomat.
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of Nato — which still has non-American coalition forces in Afghanistan and a training mission in Iraq — warned against retreating too quickly from Afghanistan in particular.
“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no Nato ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” he said in a statement earlier on Tuesday. “But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”
Later on Tuesday, Mr Trump appointed Scott O’Grady, a former fighter pilot who was shot down in Bosnia, to be assistant secretary of defence, focused on international security affairs.
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels and Chloe Cornish in Beirut