WASHINGTON – President Trump is expected to order the US military to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia until he leaves office in January, using the end of his time in power to significantly withdraw US forces from distant conflicts around the world.
According to a draft order released by the Pentagon on Monday, the number of US forces in Afghanistan will be halved from the current deployment of 4,500 troops, officials said.
In Iraq, the Pentagon will deploy levels of just under 3,000 troops previously announced by commanders. And in Somalia, almost all of the more than 700 troops conducting training and anti-terrorist missions will leave.
But the president’s aspirations have long met with resistance, as his own national security officials say abandoning such troubled countries could have catastrophic consequences – for example, when the United States withdraws from Iraq in late 2011, leaving a vacuum. which stimulated the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Mr Trump has also repeatedly called for a withdrawal from Syria, but several hundred US troops remain stationed there, in part to protect coveted oil fields held by US-backed Syrian Kurdish allies from the takeover of Syrian President Bashar’s government. Assad. The current debate on the withdrawals will not affect those in Syria, officials said.
The discussed withdrawal plan from Somalia is said not to apply to US forces stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where US drones based in Somalia are based, according to officials familiar with the internal discussions. spoke on condition of anonymity.
Maintaining these air bases would mean preserving the military’s ability to use drones to attack Shabab fighters, the Qaeda-linked terrorist group – at least those thought to pose a threat to American interests. The smaller number of troops remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan would also be enough to maintain some ability to carry out anti-terrorist attacks and strikes, officials said.
Mr Trump said in a Twitter post last month that he wanted all 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan to return by Christmas, but top military and national security aides had advised against such a rapid withdrawal. In the end, the president agreed to less absorption, officials said.
Mr Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, said last month that the United States would withdraw about 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by early next year, indirectly rebuking General Mark A. Millie, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. openly questioning this schedule.
Shortly before Mr Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper last week and appointed Christopher C. Miller as acting head of the Pentagon, Mr Esper had sent a classified note to the White House expressing concern about the acceleration. of troop reductions in Afghanistan, a senior administration official said.
Conditions on the ground have not yet been right, Mr Esper wrote, citing the continuing violence, the dangers the rapid withdrawal could pose to other troops, the effect on alliances and the fear of undermining Taliban-Afghan peace talks. The note was announced earlier by The Washington Post.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and majority leader, on Monday issued a thin veiled warning to Mr. Trump from the Senate, suggesting the president would run the risk of wasting his performance on the Middle East and repeating mistakes. of former President Barack Obama, his disgusting predecessor.
“The rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will now harm our allies and delight those who wish us harm,” Mr McConnell said. For a leader who stood loyal to Mr. Trump on most domestic issues, the departure was remarkable.
“The consequences of the premature exit of the United States would probably be even worse than the withdrawal of President Obama from Iraq in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIL and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said. “It will be reminiscent of Saigon’s humiliating departure from the United States in 1975.”
Exit from external conflicts – and Afghanistan in particular – has been a central component of Mr Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda since he ran for president in 2016. This call has especially revitalized his base of populist voters, many of whom are veterans. who got tired of their roles in long wars. The president sees his notes on this issue as important to any political future he may pursue.
Mr Esper’s attention to troop reductions is one of several factors that led to his shooting. After his departure, a group of new officers arrived, including Douglas McGregor, a retired Army colonel and a staunch supporter of ending US involvement in Afghanistan.
It is unclear whether the remaining NATO and Allied forces in Afghanistan – about 7,000 people who mainly train government forces – will also withdraw. But officials said some of the country’s northern and western countries are likely to do so, as they rely on US transport and in some cases protection.
This will leave US forces to advise a key US-Afghan command center, helping the Afghan military marshal dispose of their resources and plan his defense. Much of the rest will be in about five smaller regional targeting teams – and made up of small special operations forces – that would help target rebel groups.
The proposal to cut about 2,000 to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan comes as the country’s forces are besieged to the south and north. Morale is low among Afghan security forces, and insecurity has prompted local political leaders to make deals with the advancing Taliban.
October was the deadliest month for civilians since September 2019, according to data collected by The New York Times. More than 200 civilians were killed.
Qatar peace talks between Afghan and Taliban negotiators have stalled mainly due to the Afghan government’s reluctance to use the February deal as a guiding document for discussions.
Afghan experts say the accelerated but partial withdrawal could complicate the political choice for President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his incoming national security team, but is preferable to a full withdrawal.
“A rapid reduction to 2,500 will limit Biden Admin’s capabilities and undermine peace talks, but it will not create a complete shock to get to zero so quickly,” said Laurel E. Miller, a former senior State Department official who worked on Afghanistan’s diplomacy. Pakistan told both Mr Trump and Mr Obama on Twitter last week.
Most US troops in Somalia, a war-torn country in the Horn of Africa, are special operations forces stationed at a small number of bases across the country. Their missions include training and advising the Somali army and counter-terrorism forces and conducting raids to kill or capture their own targets against Shabab fighters.
Mr Trump’s push to leave Somalia before the end of his term comes at a delicate time: Somalia is preparing for next month’s parliamentary elections and presidential elections scheduled for early February. The removal of US troops could complicate any ability to keep election rallies and voting safe from Shabab bombers. He also came during political upheavals in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army also fought against Shabab.
The weather “could not be worse,” said Brittany Brown, who worked on Somalia’s policies on the National Security Council under Mr Obama and Mr Trump. She said she supported the withdrawal from Somalia above all.
“This is not the time to do it, because this election is really important – it matters a lot,” said Ms Brown, who is now chief of staff at the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization focused on deadly conflicts. “I hope this will not bring Somalia back into the chaos of failed states, because that would encourage Al Shabab.”
It is unclear whether other parts of the US government – such as CIA operatives, an ambassador and other State Department diplomats, who are housed in a heavily fortified bunker at Mogadishu airport, Somalia’s capital – will also withdraw from Somalia together. with the military.
Somalia has been facing civil war, drought and violence by Islamist extremists for years. The United States intervened in the country as peacekeepers at the end of the George W. Bush administration, but abandoned it shortly after the 1993 Black Hawk Down Battle, which killed 18 Americans and hundreds of militants.
Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group whose name means “youth,” emerged around 2007 and fiercely vied for control of Somalia with accidental attacks outside its borders, including an attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013. which killed more than five dozen civilians and a deadly attack on a U.S. air base in Manda Bay, Kenya, in January.
Shabab leaders vowed to be loyal to al Qaeda in 2012. In 2016, shortly before they left office, the Obama administration considered them part of a congressional war against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. During the Trump administration, the military sharply increased air strikes against Shabab fighters.
Eric Schmidt, Charlie Savage and Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Nef from Kabul, Afghanistan. Jennifer Steinhauer and Nicholas Fandos contributed to reports from Washington.