The drawdown, which would remove about 2,000 troops currently in Afghanistan and 500 now in Iraq, is similar to a plan laid out by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in October, which the Pentagon would not confirm at the time.
News of the potential military changes began circulating Monday and brought swift criticism from experts, former officials and even some of President Donald Trump’s biggest allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“There is no American who does not wish the war in Afghanistan against terrorists and their enablers had already been conclusively won. But … a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” McConnell said.
McConnell called on the president to continue applying pressure “until the conditions for the long-term defeat of ISIS (Islamic State) and al-Qaida have been achieved.” Without that, he warned an exit would be reminiscent of “the humiliating American departure from Saigon,” Vietnam, in 1975 and would be worse than the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which he said fueled the rise of Islamic State.
Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, told VOA an Afghanistan drawdown without the right conditions on the ground was “a mistake,” adding that it would destroy leverage that could be used in peace negotiations designed to end the fighting between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
“There’s negotiations ongoing; you always negotiate from a position of strength,” he said.
American troops toppled the Taliban in 2001 following an invasion that had strong public support following the September 11 terrorist attacks. But as the conflict has continued, American public opinion has split, and Trump won office in 2016 promising to withdraw from foreign conflicts.
Former senior military officials said a proposed troop drawdown from Afghanistan under the current conditions was worrisome, especially during a presidential transition period. One former senior official raised concern about what missions would need to be cut and how those cuts could negatively affect the military’s Afghan partners.
“This is a very odd time – it is hard to see the true strategy behind these machinations,” another former senior military official told VOA Monday.
Trump abruptly fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper one week ago and replaced him with Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Esper sent a classified memo to the White House earlier this month expressing concerns about a precipitous withdrawal in Afghanistan as violence remains high and peace talks drag on, according to the Washington Post.
Miller’s newly appointed senior adviser, retired Army Col. Douglas McGregor, has called for a complete withdrawal of U.S forces from Afghanistan, along with shutting down the U.S. embassy in Kabul. Anthony Tata, who has been performing the duties of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy since Tuesday, also has called for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The conspiracy theorist in me would have to say that now we seem to understand why the president purged the civilian leadership at the Pentagon,” a former senior military official said on the condition of anonymity Monday.
In a memo to the Department of Defense on Monday, Acting Secretary of Defense Miller listed bringing “the current war to an end in a responsible manner” among his top three goals.
Days earlier he had struck a contradictory tone about the U.S.-led global war on terror in his first letter to the department, writing, ”This war isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating al-Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”
However, in the next paragraph, Miller wrote, “We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
About 4,500 American troops are serving in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has been fighting for nearly two decades to prevent al-Qaida and other terror groups from establishing a safe haven from which they can carry out attacks on the U.S. and its allies. About 3,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq to advise Iraqi partners as they root out remnants of Islamic State.
A speedy, hastened withdrawal from Afghanistan in a few weeks would be “costly and much more dangerous,” than a slower, more deliberate withdrawal based on the security conditions on the ground, according to military officials.
“U.S. national security interests and conditions on the ground-and not the political calendar-should determine U.S. military posture in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior defense fellow at the Brookings Institution, expressed less concern, pointing out that president-elect Joe Biden could raise the numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan back up “fairly easily” once he takes office on January 20.
“It’s not smart, but it’s also not the end of the world. … It’s a lot better than (going to) zero,” O’Hanlon told VOA on Monday.
Last month, Trump tweeted that the U.S. should have all its troops who are serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas.
Shortly afterward, Trump’s national security adviser said the president’s tweet that U.S. troops should be home from there by December 25 was a “desire” rather than a military order.
“Right now we’re on a path with our European allies – we went into Afghanistan together; we’re going to come out together – we’re on a path right now that looks like about 4,500 this fall and a smaller number in January and February,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien said on October 16.
Average daily enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan were up 50% from July 1 to Sept. 30 of this year, compared to between April 1 and June 30, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, also known as SIGAR, said earlier this month.
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan has characterized overall enemy-initiated attacks this quarter as “above seasonal norms.”
Katherine Gypson and VOA Afghan Service contributed to this report.