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Trump Plans to Send Half the Troops in Afghanistan Home Before Leaving Office

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Trump Plans to Send Half the Troops in Afghanistan Home Before Leaving Office

2020-11-17 22:04:55

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: U.S. Army Spc. Marcelino Villarreal in Khost Province, Afghanistan (Image: Public domain)

This has been an objective of Donald Trump's throughout his administration. It was one of the themes from his 2016 campaign, to end the wars that were begun after the 9-11 attacks. It's also been something that was the basis of clashes with his Defense secretaries. On his way out of office, he's clearing out many of the remaining troops in Afghanistan and some in Iraq as well.

Officials familiar with the discussions said the White House is preparing to soon announce plans to send about half the troops in Afghanistan home, so roughly 2,500. They will be set home before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20.

It's also believed that there will be an announcement of troops being sent home from Iraq, but only trimming the force from around 3,000 to around 2,500. The obvious goal is to end these long-running clashes. Yet, militant groups are going to have difficulties.

With violence pumping up while Afghan negotiators are working on peace talks, the reduction in U.S. troops could bring the heat between the White House and Pentagon to a boiling point.

Officials explained that anything could still happen at this point and that the plans could change. However, aides have suggested Trump give a speech later this week to announce the plans.

After Trump's apparent defeat, he fired his Defense secretary, Mark Esper. and inserted loyalists in the Pentagon to replace him. He's also blocked agencies from working with Biden's team to start the transition process.

Shortly before he was let go, Esper sent a classified memo to Trump with a warning that conditions were not adequate to make additional cuts to troops in Afghanistan. He blamed it on the possibility of affecting the peace talks that were taking place and other factors.

The United States and Taliban negotiators struck a deal last February. In the deal, the U.S. promised to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 2021 if terms of the agreement were met. This would require them to break with al-Qaeda and work toward peace.

However, that May 2021 deadline depends on the Taliban keeping their end of the bargain and the security situation, which has lessened of late.

This withdrawal would be keeping in line with a statement made by National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien. Last month he publicly argued with Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley about the future in Afghanistan. Milley referred to O'Brien's insistence that the troops would be cut by 2,500 as "speculation."

Officials say the division over the troop withdrawals led to Esper's firing, and there could be more friction ahead before Trump is out of office. O'Brien has told others that Milley isn't listening to Trump about Afghanistan.

Former Green Beret and counterterrorism expert Christopher C. Miller, who replaced Esper, said in a message to Defense Department staff that "bring(ing) the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens" is among his top priorities.

News of the upcoming announcement led Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to plead with Trump to not end U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. He said in his speech that it would be an embarrassment "reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975."

He encouraged Trump to preserve the "limited but important role" of the troops that remain. "Leaving the field in Afghanistan to the Taliban and ISIS would be broadcast around the world as a symbol of U.S. defeat and humiliation."

While at one time Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) supported leaving troops in Afghanistan, he told reporters on Monday that he had been "for the idea of coming down" and appreciated that the number of troops left there would not be "zero."

Graham added that "2,500 may be the residential force that protects us from a collapse," and also said he wanted "to hear more about it" from Trump, an ally of his.

A senior defense official said reducing the troops would not "put any undue risk on U.S. forces or on our ability to support Afghan national security forces in their efforts against the Taliban. ... Most importantly, it does not degrade our ability to conduct counterterrorism operations." 

President-elect Joe Biden has not commented on the agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban or the intra-Afghan negotiations. However, his policy is actually one of the few where he's in agreement with Trump, or at least on the same plane. He has talked of ending U.S. "forever wars" and leaving a limited counterterrorism force in Afghanistan to fight al-Qaeda and ISIS.

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