Despite concerns the draw-downs will complicate the incoming Biden administration’s options, Trump’s new Pentagon chief said they are close to ending the wars.
“Today, the United States is closer than ever to ending nearly two decades of war and welcoming in an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” said Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.(Rahmat Gul/AP-File)
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced Friday the U.S. had withdrawn forces in Iraq and Afghanistan down to 2,500 in each conflict zone, following through on an unusual major policy shift announced during a lame duck period and indicating that the circumstances on the ground will likely create problems for the incoming Biden administration.
"Today, the United States is closer than ever to ending nearly two decades of war and welcoming in an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire," said Miller, who was appointed to his position days after President Donald Trump lost the November election and fired his Senate-confirmed Pentagon chief, Mark Esper, reportedly over disagreements about the withdrawal. Miller, increasingly seen as a loyalist to the president, was among the first Army Special Forces deployed to Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Miller said that halving the number of forces in Afghanistan, which he announced Nov. 17 would become complete the week before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, serves as an "indication of the United States' continued support toward the Afghan peace process and our adherence to commitments made" to agreements with the warring parties.
Critics of the plan, including those who spent most of their careers in Afghanistan and neighboring countries, say it ignores the deteriorating security situation on the ground as the Taliban continues to lay waste to fledgling local forces whose capabilities have diminished with fewer U.S. resources to back them up.
Miller in his statement hinted at the quagmire and the likelihood of continued violence, saying, "All sides must demonstrate their commitment to advancing the peace process. Further, the United States will continue to take any action necessary to ensure protection of our homeland, our citizens and our interests."
Friday's announcement defies clear instructions from Congress in its broadly bipartisan military budget bill not to use that money to withdraw forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq below 4,000 without providing clear evidence to the legislature about the viability of the plan.
Other critics see the move as an attempt by a lame-duck president to follow through on a key campaign pledge before leaving office, despite becoming hamstrung by the same dangerous realities on the ground that met similar pledges from his predecessors.
Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, told Congress days after Trump's withdrawal order in November that meetings with the Taliban "are surrender talks."
"We are waving the white flag, basically saying to the Taliban, 'You win, we lose. Let's dress this up as best we can,' an eerie reminder of the  Paris peace talks on Vietnam," Crocker, who also served as ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Kuwait, told the House Armed Services Committee.
Besides Esper, other top advisers of the president appeared to object to the plan. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly feuded with national security adviser Robert O'Brien about reports of a withdrawal in the fall.
Miller on Friday also confirmed the withdrawal of 500 troops from Iraq – a move that the Pentagon has never justified specifically, leading many to believe that the 2,500 troop levels in both countries served as somewhat arbitrary numbers.
"We will continue to have a counterterrorism platform in Iraq to support partner forces with airpower and intelligence," Miller said. "Most operations in Iraq were already being conducted by our Iraqi partners, enabled by U.S. and Coalition forces. We can continue to provide this support to our Iraqi partners at the reduced U.S. force level."
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