Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller is defending President Donald Trump’s decision to draw down to 2,500 troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq by Jan. 15, amid an onslaught of criticism from top Republican lawmakers.
The drawdown, which Miller formally announced to reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, is “consistent” with existing plans and “does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives,” Miller said.
“I celebrate this day as we continue the president’s consistent progress in completing the mission we began nearly two decades ago,” Miller said, in his first public comments since taking on the acting role last week after Trump fired his predecessor, Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Last week, POLITICO reported that Esper’s resistance to the drawdown was one of the reasons he was fired.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien also touted the drawdown on Tuesday, echoing Miller’s comments that the move does not reflect a change in policy.
“By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety. I want to reiterate that this policy is not new. This has been the president’s policy since he took office,” O’Brien said at the White House minutes after Miller finished speaking at the Pentagon.
Neither Miller nor O’Brien took questions from reporters.
The comments came as top Republican lawmakers blast the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Trump ally, urged the president against making “any earthshaking changes in regards to defense and foreign policy” before leaving office.
“A precipitous drawdown in either Afghanistan or Iraq is a mistake,” McConnell said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, House Armed Services ranking Republican, also used the word "mistake."
"Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut," he tweeted.
Despite the criticism, the order stops short of the full withdrawal from “endless wars” in the region Trump promised during his 2016 campaign and throughout his four years in office. The president wrote in an Oct. 7 tweet that the remaining troops in Afghanistan should be "home by Christmas," alarming lawmakers and top military commanders, who urged a more deliberate drawdown.
Trump’s decision to leave a few thousand troops in both countries comes at the recommendation of his top national security team and his most senior military advisers both in theater and in Washington, and is based on security concerns on the ground, senior defense officials said ahead of Miller’s comments.
In recent weeks, Trump’s top advisers, including O’Brien and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, argued that going down to 2,500 by early 2021, as opposed to a full withdrawal by that time, was "a responsible middle ground," said one administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.
"The president understands that a complete withdrawal on this shortened timeline isn’t practical," said the administration official, who blamed previous Pentagon leadership for slow-rolling the drawdown. "If DoD hadn’t obstructed him for four years we’d be in a different place, but this is where we are."
The U.S. is currently in the midst of drawing down to 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, and is on track to pull all American troops out by May 2021 under a February peace deal in exchange for a set of guarantees from the Taliban, including disavowing terrorist groups and negotiating a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
But in recent months, top U.S. military commanders have argued that violence in Afghanistan is still too high to justify a full withdrawal. As recently as October, officers at U.S. Central Command said they believed the situation in Afghanistan was still too volatile to go below 4,500, and that the Taliban are not negotiating in good faith with the Afghan government.
The most recent DoD Inspector General report on the Afghanistan mission cited "distressingly high" levels of violence that could threaten the peace agreement, and noted that intra-Afghan negotiations that began in September "quickly stalled."
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan reported to the IG that there were instances of "indirect fire and surface-to-air attacks" against the coalition, including an incident in which the Taliban launched a rocket against a coalition base in Helmand province, according to the report — attacks that would violate the agreement. The Taliban denied responsibility.
Leaving a few thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan is essential for the intelligence operations necessary to keep tabs on the movements of the Taliban and other militant groups, said one former administration official.
"With 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, we can protect the American people, we can protect the Afghan people," said one senior defense official. "The decision to bring troops home was made at the direction of the president because the two greatest concerns … have been met."
Matthew Choi and Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.
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