The US military has lowered troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 each, their lowest levels in nearly two decades since the war began, the Pentagon announced Friday.
The outgoing President Donald Trump, who sought to fulfill a campaign promise to end the two wars launched after the 9/11 attacks, had ordered that forces be reduced in both countries to that level by 15 January – despite the first pushback from the Pentagon.
Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller said that progress toward peace in both countries allows for cuts without compromising the security of Americans and their counterparts.
“Today, the United States is closer than ever to ending nearly two decades of war and welcoming it into an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process to achieve a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire,” he said in a statement.
More cuts, he said, are due to the development of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency.
“Today, the US forces in Afghanistan amount to 2,500 – a level of strength that promotes both our mission against terrorism and our determination, together with our NATO partners, to support Afghan security forces working to ensure peace in their country.” A / SD Chris Miller
– Ministry of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) January 15, 2021
The United States invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban regime then in place had hosted Al Qaeda’s mastermind Osama bin Laden.
The regime was quickly overthrown but began a revolt and has seen a resurgence in recent years, with violence soaring across the country since NATO withdrew its forces in 2014 and civilians paid a disproportionate price.
Washington signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020 to begin withdrawing in exchange for security guarantees from the militants and a commitment to peace talks with Kabul.
These talks are ongoing, but have stemmed from violence and accusations of slow progress. Meanwhile, the Taliban have continued their deadly attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians.
Even when the closure was announced on Friday, Afghan officials said at least nine Afghan security personnel were killed when Taliban militants attacked police checkpoints overnight in the rebuilt northern province of Kunduz.
The decline in Afghanistan is faster than originally planned under the terms of the US-Taliban agreement.
Miller took over as Pentagon chief after Trump fired his predecessor Mark Esper in November, partly because he quietly but firmly insisted that the level stay at 4,500 troops until the Taliban followed up to reduce violence.
However, some defense analysts welcomed the news – not because it “represents a victory, but because it is a belated recognition of failure”, according to a statement from the Defense Priorities think tank.
“Calls to keep troops there, perhaps referred to as a counter-terrorism force, would break with the deal and likely pull US forces back into the civil war,” it said.
“It is also unlikely that their presence will make a Taliban peace deal with the Afghan government much more likely. Unfortunately, peace is unlikely – no matter what the United States does.”
Miller said the Pentagon aims to “further reduce US troop levels to zero by May 2021,” but added that “such future cuts remain conditional.”
NATO – whose head Jens Stoltenberg has warned of a hasty Afghan withdrawal for fear that the country could once again become a “platform for international terrorists” – still maintains a force of less than 11,000 in the country, an official said.
In Iraq, Miller said the reduction in US strength reflects “the increased capacity of Iraqi security forces.”
He added, however, that the reduction “does not correspond to a change in US policy.”
“The United States and coalition forces remain in Iraq to ensure the (Islamic State group)’s lasting defeat.”
“We will continue to have a terrorist platform in Iraq to support partner forces with the air force and intelligence,” he said.