Trump’s New Defense Secretary Announces Afghan Withdrawal

The hasty–and unexplained—move drew criticism from Republicans and the head of NATO.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Nov. 28, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to troops during a surprise Thanksgiving day visit at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan on Nov. 28, 2019. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration will draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 troops in each country before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller confirmed in a statement Tuesday, a move that will put the outgoing president at odds with Republicans in Congress and the incoming Biden team.

Miller—who has not taken questions from reporters in his eight-day tenure on the job—did not provide any rationale for the decision, identify which units would move out of the country and on what timetable, or clarify what the mission for the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops would be.

Speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity before the announcement, senior defense officials said that top military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan supported the decision and that it was merited by conditions on the ground, but they did not provide further details.

But the move reportedly went against the advice of fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and U.S. Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie, who warned the conditions weren’t met for a withdrawal in a memo that may have helped prompt Esper’s ouster.

While a step toward fulfilling Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to end U.S. involvement in perceived “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, the move would leave significant numbers of residual forces in both countries, as the Americans engage in ongoing peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar. Though Miller insisted the decision was not a change in policy, the United States had initially sought to tie troop withdrawals to further Taliban reductions in violence, and the Trump administration is pulling out despite a heavy uptick of insurgent offensives in the embattled Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the last three months.

The new acting Pentagon chief spent the morning briefing members of Congress on Capitol Hill about the decision, many of whom opposed the decision. In a rare statement criticizing Trump administration policy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said on Monday that the rapid drawdown “would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm.” Acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, openly compared the prospect of a withdrawal to “a Saigon type of situation,” referencing the fall of Vietnam’s largest city at the end of the U.S. involvement in the war.

The reaction was similar on the Democratic side in Congress, where many hope to see a withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq but worry about the decision being made too quickly, as Iraq’s intelligence service reported four rockets fired on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad just moments after the announcement.

“There was no doubt the final days of this administration would be tumultuous, but the haphazard nature of President Trump’s decision will harm our national security and jeopardize countless American, Afghan, and Iraqi lives,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Armed Services Committee. But House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a fellow Democrat, called the move “the right policy decision.”

U.S. allies also expressed public reservations about the withdrawal. In a statement on Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, while acknowledging that “no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” warned that “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

“Afghanistan risks becoming once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks on our homelands,” Stoltenberg said, warning that the Islamic State could use the country to restore its lost self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Brett McGurk, Trump’s former presidential envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition and now a critic of the administration, called the move “diplomatic malpractice.”

But a smattering of Republicans applauded the Trump administration for the withdrawal. Writing to Miller on Tuesday, Trump ally Sen. Josh Hawley said the 19-year U.S. war in Afghanistan had devolved into a nation-building exercise that was a drain on taxpayers and working Americans. “In the aftermath of 9/11, it was imperative that we destroyed al Qaeda and punished the Taliban,” Hawley wrote. “But those objectives have long since given way to a broader nation-building mission in the region. This is a mistake.”

Meanwhile, Biden has promised to leave a residual counterterrorism force in Afghanistan when he takes office, making some experts wary that the incoming commander in chief could disrupt fragile peace talks with an overly bellicose approach.

“I think there might be some folks in a future Biden administration who feel that the best way to extract a political settlement is to pressure the Taliban on the battlefield instead of giving political concessions,” said Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute who deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine in 2012. “But this failed in the past.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch