Trump administration announces partial troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq

By January, the number of troops in both these countries will be down to around 2,500. Peace activists have welcomed the decision even as sections of the establishment have resisted it

November 18, 2020 by Peoples Dispatch
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller briefs reporters from the Pentagon, Washington, D.C. Nov. 17, 2020. (DoD Photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)

The Pentagon announced on Tuesday, November 17, a significant reduction in the number of troops posted in Afghanistan and Iraq. Acting secretary of defense Chris Miller made the announcement according to which by January 15 next year, around 2,000 troops from Afghanistan and around 500 from Iraq will be withdrawn.  

After the withdrawal, the number of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq will come down to 2,500 each. In Afghanistan, the US currently has around 4,500 troops. The number of US troops in Iraq is around 3,000. According to Miller, the move to bring back these soldiers is as per president Trump’s promise of ending the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, the move to withdraw troops from Afghanistan has seen stiff opposition from various sections of the US establishment. Republican senator Mitch McConnell warned that such a move is undesirable at a time when there is no certainty of Taliban’s commitment to the deal. The ongoing talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have not seen much progress. The Trump administration had signed a deal with the Taliban in February this year, agreeing to withdraw all its troops from the country within 14 months.

The US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman general Mark Milley publicly countered Trump’s tweet last month in which Trump had announced that all US troops from Afghanistan would be home for Christmas. Milley had argued that withdrawal from Afghanistan would be conditional on the success of intra-Afghan talks.   

Donald Trump’s move to withdraw troops has also been criticized as a move to complicate issues for president-elect Joe Biden. Though Trump has not conceded defeat yet in the November 3 presidential election, the Democratic nominee has been declared victorious and he is expected to revisit the status of the US troops in the Middle East.

Christopher Miller, an Iraq war veteran, was appointed the head of Pentagon last week after Trump fired secretary of defense Mark Esper who had opposed the complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Soon after his appointment on November 9, Miller announced that “Now, it’s time [for the US troops] to come home [from Afghanistan].”   

The Trump administration argued that there is no reason for the US to be in Afghanistan 17 years after overthrowing the Taliban. Its decision is also based on the mounting financial cost of keeping the troops in Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, the total cost for the US to merely keep its military in Afghanistan in the last 19 years has been over USD 778 billion. Taking into account other expenses, the cost would run into around a thousand billion.

The Afghan government has expressed skepticism about Trump’s decision to withdraw the troops and has called for “responsible withdrawal” keeping in mind the situation in the country, Tolo News reported.

Though the move has been criticized by the sections in the establishment, peace activists in the country have termed it a welcome but insufficient move.   

A forced move in Iraq

In Iraq, the US has been forced to reduce the number of its troops due to rising popular pressure. The US troops in the country were first deployed during the 2003 invasion. Though most of the troops were withdrawn later in 2014, post the rise of Islamic State or ISIS, the US deployed several thousand troops back to the country in order to “train” Iraqi forces to fight ISIS. Iraq declared victory over ISIS in 2017.

The new government under prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been negotiating the gradual withdrawal of US troops from the country following a resolution passed by the Iraqi parliament in January demanding the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country.

The resolution was prompted by the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, leader of an Iraqi militia group, in a US drone attack near the Baghdad airport on January 3. The US assassination led to Iranian missile attack on the US troops inside Iraq. Since then the US troops located in various Iraqi bases have come under attack by Iraqi militias. In the ongoing popular protests, the issue of the presence of the foreign troops in the country has been raised as “occupation” and “interference” in the country.   

The US has been redeploying its troops to Baghdad from remote bases and had significantly reduced their numbers from over 5,200 to 3,000 by September.

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