The Pentagon will reduce troop strengths in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 by January 15, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said Tuesday, a move the Trump administration has signaled for months.
The decision to withdraw troops to these levels in Afghanistan, originally announced last month by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, comes despite recent statements by senior military officials that local conditions do not warrant such a move.
In a brief address to the press, Miller did not provide details of the reasons for the move, but said it was “the next phase of our campaign to combat terrorists who attacked our home country” and “prevent future acts of terrorism this step “our nation.”
“This is in line with our established plans and strategic goals, which are backed by the American people, and is not the same as changing US policies or goals,” said Miller, who asked no questions.
There are currently 4,500 to 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and more than 3,000 in Iraq, according to defense officials.
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Shortly after Miller’s announcement, O’Brien expanded the role that the remaining armed forces will assume in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These forces will defend our embassies and the other US government agencies that are doing important work in these countries,” he said.
“By May, President Trump is hoping they all get home safely and completely,” added O’Brien.
The announcement came days after the president installed several loyalists in top positions in the Department of Defense after officials resigned after the brief overthrow of Defense Secretary Mark Esper on November 9.
Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, criticized the planned troop withdrawal.
“At a time when our adversaries are looking for every way to exploit our weaknesses, the government should reconsider and reverse this politically motivated decision and avoid worsening our national security challenges,” he said in a statement.
The move still ends just before Trump’s promise to end America’s longest war. Just last month, the president tweeted that he wanted to withdraw all remaining troops in Afghanistan by Christmas.
The US exit from Afghanistan was set out in a peace agreement with the Taliban in February. Under the agreement, Washington agreed to withdraw American troops by May 2021 in return for the Taliban renouncing terrorism and holding peace talks with their enemies in the Afghan government.
In an interview with NBC News in September, General Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said the Taliban had failed to honor their end of the deal.
“The Taliban have been careful not to attack US or coalition forces in Afghanistan,” McKenzie said. “However, they continued to attack the government security forces at a relatively rapid pace. And that is very worrying.”
General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said NPR In October it was planned to withdraw the troops in Afghanistan to 4,500 men by November.
“It’s a conditions-based plan,” he said, adding that the US continues to monitor conditions.
The next day the spokesman for the US armed forces in Afghanistan said on twitter that the US “conducted several targeted strikes in Helmand to defend ANDSF forces under attack by Taliban fighters”.
General Scott Miller, the commanding general, wrote: “The Taliban must immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence across the country. This is inconsistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan peace talks.”
The United States has been in Afghanistan for 19 years, making it America’s longest war.
Before Miller’s announcement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Tuesday that the military organization could pay a heavy price for leaving the country too early.
“We now face a difficult decision. We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years and no NATO ally wants to stay longer than necessary. At the same time, the price for an early or uncoordinated departure could be very high, ”said Stoltenberg in a statement.
US troops invaded Iraq in 2003 and left in 2011, but returned in 2014 after the Islamic State militant group overran large parts of the country.
Iran and pro-Iranian groups in Iraq are also likely to celebrate the news of another US troop withdrawal, as they have repeatedly urged American troops to leave Iraq.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.