U.S. Troops Are Packing Up, Ready or Not

By Thomas Gibbons-NeffNajim Rahim and 

The Pentagon has announced a reduction down to 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan before President-elect Biden takes office. Afghan officials fear the cuts will encourage the Taliban to keep fighting.

The Taliban have threatened areas surrounding Kandahar city, like the Panjwai District, shown on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Had it not been for dozens of U.S. airstrikes in recent weeks, the southern hub city Kandahar would be under siege, after Taliban fighters threatened to overrun several surrounding districts, security officials say.

Now with President Trump’s orders to cut American forces in Afghanistan by roughly half — from 4,500 to 2,500 — Kandahar’s fate, and the fate of the Afghan security forces spread across the country, are once more in question.

“If it were not for the air support of U.S. forces, the Taliban would be sitting inside Kandahar city now,” Col. Zabiullah Ghorzang, an Afghan Army regimental commander in Kandahar Province, said Tuesday.

The Pentagon on Tuesday formally announced those troop cuts, stopping short of the full withdrawal by Christmas that Mr. Trump had mused about publicly and ensuring that the war in Afghanistan will transition to a fourth American administration over almost 20 years of conflict.

Mr. Trump’s withdrawal will leave President-elect Joseph R. Biden, without his consultation, the smallest force in Afghanistan envisioned by American counterterrorism planners. But in pushing for the reduction before he leaves office, Mr. Trump has faced resistance from some prominent members of his own party in Congress — and on Tuesday from rankled NATO allies as well.

The reduction, though expected by Afghan officials, is coming at a desperate time for Afghanistan: Peace negotiations in Qatar between the Afghan government and the insurgency are stalled, Taliban offensives are surging near important cities in the south and north, and morale has been plunging among the Afghan government forces as they take heavy casualties, officials say.

Afghan officials have long seen the American military presence as a crucial incentive for the Taliban to keep its promises and choose negotiation over endless war. Now, many in Afghanistan — including, government officials fear, the Taliban — are taking Mr. Trump’s quickened drawdown as the clearest signal yet that the United States is leaving Afghanistan no matter what the insurgency does.

American military personnel in a helicopter flying over Helmand Province last year.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The withdrawal plan has ramifications beyond Afghanistan, including troop cutbacks in the Middle East and Africa.

In Iraq, the American troop presence, which is seen as a hedge against a resurgence of the Islamic State and against powerful Iranian influence, has already come down to about 3,500 troops this year. Under the new orders, Pentagon officials say it will come down to around 2,500 in January. Unlike in Afghanistan, the cuts have not been a source of alarm: Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has described the cuts as being agreed to and desirable for both sides.

Almost immediately after the Pentagon announced the withdrawal on Tuesday, mortar shells or rockets were fired in several places in Baghdad, including near the U.S. Embassy. Officials said that the attacks killed a child and left five civilians wounded.

In Somalia, the withdrawal plan — no formal numbers were announced on Tuesday — is coming as the Shabab, a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda, continues to intensify its attacks on both military and civilian targets in an effort to topple the country’s Western-backed government. More than 650 American troops — many of them from the Special Operations forces — are there to train Somalian forces and conduct operations against the Shabab.

Officials and analysts in Somalia say the sudden reduction or removal of those forces would be a propaganda victory for the Shabab at a critical time, and would also leave stated American goals for the troop presence unfinished.

“In terms of improving local capacity and degrading Al Shabab — none of that has really been accomplished,” said Omar Mahmood, a senior Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

U.S. military personnel survey damage at Al Asad Air Base in Anbar, Iraq, after it was struck by Iranian missiles in January.

Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

For the Afghan government, the tumult surrounding the rapid U.S. withdrawal is only underscoring its reliance on Western support. Local police and national forces have been either pinned down or in retreat in many areas recently, rattled by the prospect of diminishing American support, Afghan officials say. And no one here expects a Biden administration to send troops back.

October was the deadliest month for civilians since September 2019, according to data compiled by The New York Times. More than 200 civilians were killed.

“The Afghan Army isn’t strong enough to stand against terrorists just by themselves, and it is obvious that they need others’ support,” said Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired Afghan Army general and military analyst. The Taliban “are stronger than in the past, and if the Americans leave and don’t support and assist the Afghan Army they won’t resist long, and the Taliban will take over. This is what scares me the most.”

The Afghan security forces are still well-supplied, and funded by an influx of foreign cash, meaning a further American withdrawal would not automatically entail a collapse. Afghan military officials say they have defensive plans of their own if the United States continues to withdraw and the peace talks drag on without progress.

An Afghan soldier watching over a position last year along the the main road in Warduj, in Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan.
Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Speaking to Parliament on Tuesday, acting Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid tried to assure lawmakers that Afghans should not worry about the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“We are not concerned, and we are ready to defend Afghanistan independently,” Mr. Khalid said.

But that has not stopped some Afghan officials from fearing another civil war if the country splits along ethnic and regional lines while under pressure of the Taliban’s attacks.

Metra Mehran, a member of the Feminine Perspectives Campaign in Afghanistan, worried that the Americans were leaving without getting enough assurances from the Taliban and without a clear path forward for the peace talks.

“Considering that the negotiations haven’t reached any agreement and security has been worsened, I am afraid it can even lead to another civil war,” Ms. Mehran said. “It is not a wise decision to leave without any concrete agreement and a feasible agenda beyond it.”

President Trump addressed U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan last year.
Credit…Ersin Schaff/The New York Times

At the Pentagon, acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller told reporters that the troop cuts in Afghanistan — he called them “repositioning” — would not adversely affect the safety of remaining American soldiers, diplomats or intelligence officers on the ground, and “does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.”

The cuts, with a deadline a few days before Mr. Biden is to be inaugurated in January, will leave behind a force that military planners see as a critical counterterrorism force to serve as a hedge against Al Qaeda and Islamic State loyalists and to try to keep neighboring countries from meddling more forcefully in Afghanistan. Mr. Biden has referred to that kind of force in his own sparing mentions of a future Afghan strategy.

Mr. Miller, a former Army Green Beret who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he spent Tuesday morning calling NATO allies and other partners to notify them of Mr. Trump’s new orders and to reassure them of America’s commitment to the nearly two-decade-old mission in Afghanistan.

“We went in together, we adjust together, and, when the time is right, we will leave together,” Mr. Miller said.

But NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, appeared to express frustration with the sped-up American withdrawal. In a sharply worded statement Tuesday, he warned that “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

“Even with further U.S. reductions, NATO will continue its mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

Most notably, Italian and German forces, which rely on American transport and protection for their missions in northern and western Afghanistan, would have a decision about whether to scale back their operations as well.

Afghan officials involved in the peace negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar insisted that withdrawal or not, they would still be prioritizing the negotiation process.

Members of the Taliban delegation at the peace talks in Doha.
Credit…EPA, via Shutterstock

“We are in negotiations — we are not thinking about the withdrawal of foreign forces, said Ghulam Farooq Majrooh, a member of Parliament and part of the Afghan government’s negotiating team with the Taliban. “What is important for us is how to reach an agreement and a cease-fire and peace.”

In the Feb. 29 agreement between the United States and the Taliban that started the troop withdrawal, the Taliban agreed to publicly separate itself from Al Qaeda — which was under the Taliban government’s protection when it launched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and to deny terrorist groups the use of Afghan territory as a haven.

But the troop withdrawal has continued even though last month a Qaeda leader was killed in a Taliban-controlled district in the country’s east, and there has been no evidence of any decisive severing of ties between the groups.

But for Hayatullah, 33, a street vendor in Kandahar, peace agreements and diplomatic forays to end the war meant little. All he can see is that the security in his city was worsening.

“The city condition is bad, people are worried, the fighting is ongoing in several directions of the city and the districts are falling,” said Hayatullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name. “We are afraid that Americans leaving will only intensify it.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Najim Rahim reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Fatima Faizi from Kabul. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt and Jennifer Steinhauer from Washington; Taimoor Shah from Kandahar; Abdi Latif Dahir from Cairo; and Falih Hassan from Baghdad.

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As Trump’s term nears close, administration announces troop level cuts in Afghanistan and Iraq

Forward Operating Base Lightning, a U.S. Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan, has already been shut down. With new troop drawdowns, it isn’t clear how many bases the military will retain in Afghanistan.
November 18, 2020

The U.S. military will halve the number of troops it has in Afghanistan within the next two months, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, as President Trump seeks to move closer to keeping a promise to end wars abroad despite concerns that the decision could undermine negotiations with the Taliban.

Pentagon officials also said they would make smaller cuts in Iraq, where U.S. forces have focused on countering the Islamic State.

“We owe this moment to the many patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice and our comrades who carry forward their legacy,” acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller said at the Pentagon.

Miller said the military will carry out Trump’s orders in both countries by Jan. 15, with troop numbers reduced from about 5,000 to 2,500 in Afghanistan and from about 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq. Even with the president’s repeated calls over the years to bring American troops home, the United States remains entangled in the wars in the closing weeks of the Trump administration.

In Afghanistan, which the United States invaded in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the move appeared to mark a middle ground between Trump’s impulse to remove all American troops and recommendations from senior U.S. military officials to maintain the current numbers. In October, the president tweeted that all U.S. troops should be “home by Christmas.”

The announcement came eight days after Miller took over for ousted defense secretary Mark T. Esper, who had submitted a classified memo to the White House saying that the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan did not warrant such troop reductions.

Esper cited a recent surge in Taliban violence, safety concerns for remaining U.S. troops, possible damage to alliances and the chance that reducing troops could undermine negotiations with the Taliban to secure a landmark deal with the Afghan government.

Miller, a retired Special Forces officer who previously served Trump as a counterterrorism adviser, did not mention Esper’s dissent and took no questions from reporters. Miller said he was celebrating the decision, highlighting the toll that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on military families, including 6,900 dead service members, 52,000 more wounded and others who carry scars “visible and invisible.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, did not appear alongside Miller at the lectern — raising questions about the view of top military officials. Milley has been seen in the White House as opposing deeper cuts, administration officials have said, and when national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien announced in October that Trump planned to withdraw 2,500 service members from Afghanistan this year, Milley called it “speculation.”

At the White House, O’Brien said the remaining American troops in both countries will defend U.S. Embassies, enable allies and deter foes. Trump’s plan to cut troops has been consistent, O’Brien added, citing his comments in October.

“By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety,” he said.

The United States has spent trillions of dollars in wars since 2001. Nearly 800,000 service members have deployed to Afghanistan at least once, according to Pentagon statistics, a figure that does not include diplomats, aid workers or private security contractors.

The decision comes about nine months after the Trump administration and the Taliban reached a deal that will remove all U.S. troops there by May if certain conditions are met.

Senior U.S. military officials have raised concerns about the Taliban’s commitment to meeting the terms of the deal, citing a spike in violence against Afghans since the agreement was signed and questions about whether the militant group will break with al-Qaeda.

Miller said the troop cuts are consistent with the administration’s established plans and strategic objectives, and are based on continuous conversations with national security advisers in the Cabinet.

During his remarks, Miller said he had spoken with military commanders in recent days, “and we will all execute this repositioning in a way that protects our fighting men and women, our partners in the intelligence community, our diplomatic corps and our superb allies.”

A senior defense official said before Miller’s announcement that the administration believes the cuts are the best way to drive toward a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The official said the plan was reached “in consultation” with commanders, but declined to comment on Esper’s memo or on specific recommendations from senior military officers, including Milley and Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

It was not clear how many bases the United States would retain.

The official said the U.S. mission in Iraq would remain roughly the same.

In Baghdad, the news of the partial withdrawal was greeted with possible trouble, as several rockets were fired in the city, shaking some neighborhoods and killing at least one civilian, security officials said. The violence appeared to end a month-long truce announced by Iranian-backed militias, which have launched long-range attacks on U.S. positions, triggering warnings from American officials that they will retaliate if U.S. troops are killed.

In a rare rebuke, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Afghanistan could again become a platform for terrorists to launch attacks overseas. And the Islamic State, he said, could rebuild in Afghanistan after largely being stamped out in Iraq and Syria.

“We have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and no NATO ally wants to stay any longer than necessary,” Stoltenberg said in a statement. “But at the same time, the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”

U.S. lawmakers appeared deeply divided on the pullout plans, offering a mix of responses.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he thinks the decision will undercut negotiations with the Taliban, which he said had not met conditions of the agreement.

But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in a letter sent to Miller on Tuesday, before the announcement at the Pentagon, that he supports the president’s plan and believes that most policymakers have ignored Americans’ desire to end the war.

“They are certainly entitled to keep advocating nation-building, but they have no right to force working Americans to pay the price for their agenda,” Hawley wrote. “The American people deserve an end to this war. They deserve to know that their sons and daughters will not be put in harm’s way unless it is absolutely necessary.”

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, signaled support for the cuts, saying that they “must be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region.”

James Dobbins, a veteran diplomat who worked on Afghanistan during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said the decision to withdraw troops stood in contradiction to the Taliban’s promise to break with al-Qaeda and reduce violence in its February agreement with the United States.

“So this is directly rewarding bad behavior,” he said.

He saw the decision as more about Trump’s domestic political concerns than national security.

“Clearly, it’s a legal order,” Dobbins said. “The military isn’t not going to obey. They’re going to salute.”

Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad, Adam Taylor in Washington and Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

U.S. Troops Are Packing Up, Ready or Not