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Trump’s just-announced troop drawdown from Afghanistan and Iraq, explained

It might not change the mission in Iraq much, but it could complicate US operations in Afghanistan.

A US Marine at a military camp in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan in 2017.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump is planning to withdraw more US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing a few thousand more service members home but still falling short of his promise to end America’s “forever wars.”

With just two months left in office, the Trump administration is rushing to wind down the decades-long fights he’s continually derided. Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller on Tuesday confirmed in a briefing multiple reports that the US will drop to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, down from about 4,500 currently, and dwindle to 2,500 in Iraq from the current level of over 3,000. The administration also aims to pull out all 700 service members currently fighting in Somalia.

Miller said the Pentagon is following Trump’s orders and that the drawdown “is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in US policy or objectives. Moreover, this decision by the president is based on continuous engagement with his national security Cabinet over the past several months.” The acting Pentagon chief left the briefing room without taking questions.

The plan is for the withdrawals to happen by January 15 — just five days before President-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office. A senior Afghan official, not authorized to speak publicly, told me “we haven’t yet been informed officially” about a drawdown.

Mere minutes after Miller’s comments, which were echoed by National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, multiple rockets hit near the US Embassy in Baghdad.

That won’t make the announcement any easier to hear for the plan’s critics.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, usually an ally of the president, said Monday that “The consequences of a premature American exit” from Afghanistan “would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism.” And on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

But it appears the withdrawals are moving forward regardless. They’ll have serious implications for the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, made more complicated by the rushed, slapdash nature of the drawdown.

“It’s hard to imagine a less responsible way to withdraw,” said Jason Dempsey, a former Army infantry officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What the Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawals would mean

Let’s start with Iraq: Experts I spoke to said the removal of around 500 US troops from Iraq, which will leave 2,500 still in the country, won’t change much. The US is there to train, assist, and share intelligence with Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS and some Iranian-backed militias. While a smaller force makes the job harder, analysts said those who remain could still do those jobs.

After all, the US military is now skilled at conducting operations with an ever-dwindling number of service members in that country. “This process of downgrading the US military footprint has been ongoing for some time,” said Randa Slim, an Iraq expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

The troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, on the other hand, could have more impact.

US forces are in Afghanistan for two purposes. The first is to “train, advise, and assist” Afghan security forces, alongside NATO allies, to fend off the Taliban. The second is to counter terrorist threats emanating from the country from groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

At 2,500 troops, the US will basically have to abandon the training mission and focus solely on the counterterrorism one, said Jonathan Schroden, an expert on America’s military efforts in Afghanistan at the CNA think tank in Washington, DC. He said that number is “basically the floor” of what’s needed to fight terrorists in the country, meaning there wouldn’t be many service members left over to help the Afghans with their battle.

However, the US military has provided Afghan troops and police forces with remote support over the past few months due to the coronavirus, Schroden said. It’s therefore possible the departing Americans could still provide similar assistance while stationed back in the US or somewhere else, such as the Middle East or Europe.

There’s another complication: What to do with all the weapons and equipment the US military has in Afghanistan? Schroden told me much of the weaponry and vehicles can be shipped out on planes and trucks by mid-January. But the stuff the US won’t have enough time to remove — which could include items like sensitive computer systems, refrigerators, generators, and even entire military bases — will have to be destroyed in order to keep it from potentially falling into enemy hands.

Finally, there’s a larger political question: What does leaving mean for America’s diplomatic pact with the Taliban? The deal both parties signed earlier this year said all US troops had to leave by May 2021, assuming conditions in the country are relatively peaceful and the Taliban has upheld its end of the deal, which includes engaging in peace talks with the Afghan government and not attacking international forces.

Those peace talks began in September but are not going very well — not least because Taliban fighters have increased their attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians across the country in recent months.

Dempsey, the former infantry officer who’s now at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said pulling more US troops out of the country as those negotiations proceed could hurt Kabul’s negotiating position and encourage even more Taliban attacks. “Giving away any leverage you have as you leave is a pretty stupid way to go about it,” he told me.

The question now is what Biden would do with the forces Trump plans to leave him with. The president-elect has said he wants to keep at least some troops in Afghanistan to serve as a counterterrorism force, so it’s possible he may not change anything when he takes office. “In some ways Trump is handing him the force posture that Biden has long advocated for,” Schroden said.

But the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan could quickly shift later on in Biden’s presidency. For instance, the Taliban could once again attempt a forcible takeover of the Afghan government, as they did in 1996. Or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq could launch a particularly deadly attack on US forces in that country. In such scenarios, Biden could decide to send more troops back into those countries to deal with the issues at hand.

Barring such events, though, it’s likely a President Biden would keep the troop totals as he found them, at least in the near future.

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