Military experts say a US troop withdrawal complicates conditions on the ground

Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller has announced a major troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. The news is being met with plenty of skepticism.

“It’s time to leave Afghanistan.”

That’s what the Pentagon’s new acting leader, Chris Miller, wrote in a two-page memo to Defense Department staff on Nov. 13.

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Miller went on to add: “We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end.”

Four days later, Miller announced a major troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia: “By Jan. 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date.”

There are currently about 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq. The administration also aims to pull out all 700 service members currently fighting in Somalia.

The news from Washington broke late Tuesday night for people in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many learned the next morning.

And while some say it’s time for American troops to come home, Miller’s announcement has been met with plenty of skepticism. Many US military experts worry a hasty and uncoordinated troop withdrawal would leave local forces in a dangerous position in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where Americans help train and assist local forces. And some critics say that the move is political — and seems to have more to do with President Donald Trump’s legacy than concern for Americans.

Javid Faisal, an adviser to Afghanistan’s National Security Council, said the news wasn’t a complete surprise since the Trump administration had already made remarks about pulling out American troops. Faisal said that the Afghan national defense and security forces have been defending the country since 2014 on their own.

“They are able to do it in the future, but they will need the support of the international community,” he said, “for financial, training and advising.”

“The withdrawal should be a very responsible one to make sure that any decision that’s being taken in this regard does not reverse us. Does not take us back to where we were 20 years ago, when there was al-Qaeda, when there was other insurgent groups,” he added.

Many share this concern.

“It will be much harder to provide advice and training to Iraqi forces, which is the primary role that’s going on right now,” said David M. Witty, a retired US Army colonel who served in Iraq, including after a major troop withdrawal by the Obama administration in 2011.

US forces help the Iraqis fight ISIS, and they limit Iran’s influence in Iraq, he said.

“The problem would be, you would basically be turning Iraq over to Iran. There’s no other way to put it,” Witty said.

Iran has created and supported a web of powerful militias in Iraq. A drawdown of US forces would mean these militias could have more of a free hand in the country.

Meanwhile, the US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan was to be conditional.

Last February, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban. The US agreed to pull troops out in phases and only if the group met a series of conditions: that the Taliban reduces its violence, sits down with the representatives of the Afghan government and cuts ties with al-Qaeda.

Retired US Army Gen. David Petraeus told The World that there is no indication that the Taliban has met any of these conditions.

“This [troop withdrawal] frankly undermines the efforts at the negotiating table because you’re essentially giving the Taliban what they really want, having already pressured the Afghan government to release some 5,000 or so Taliban detainees,” Petraeus said.

Petraeus added that a reduction of forces should always be conditions-based. His concern is that after the US leaves, the Afghan security forces will no longer be able to maintain the security for major routes and cities.

Violence in Afghanistan increased as much as 50% in recent months as the Taliban was taking part in peace talks. In its quarterly report to the US Congress, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said there were at least 2,561 civilian casualties this quarter, including 876 deaths, up 43% from the April to June period.

Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, said that the Taliban wants to have complete power — and that it will have that opportunity if it just waits out the United States and focuses entirely on the fight.

Kugelman and other experts told The World that they sympathize with Americans who are weary of war and with families who have loved ones serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I think it’s time to bring all troops home,” Kugelman said, “but this is really the last opportunity you have to try to kickstart an admittedly fragile, but nonetheless, existent peace process, and yet you’re whittling away your last elements of leverage by pulling all of these troops very suddenly without the Taliban having done anything first.”

Can the US send additional troops back to Afghanistan if needed?

Jonathan Schroden, director for the Center for Stability and Development at the CNA Corporation and a longtime military analyst, said it could get complicated.

“[The US] would have to get the approval of the Afghan government in order to do that. The current Afghan government, I think, would agree to that type of arrangement, but I wouldn’t want to presume that the US could just do that because it’s not a unilateral decision,” he said.

Schroden said troop withdrawals take time. Flying personnel out of the country can be done quickly, but winding down big military bases is a different undertaking.

“If they were going to zero, I would say it would be a logistical nightmare to do that by January,” he said, “to go to 2,500 is still going to be challenging because they’re going to have to close a number of fairly sizable military installations.”

Ultimately, Trump’s decision to bring troops home, Kugelman, at the Wilson Center, said, is based on political goals. The election might be over, but the president is still thinking about his legacy.

“He wants to be remembered as the president who brought as many troops home,” Kugelman said.

“But when we hear all this talk here in Washington about ending the war, it’s important to remember that by bringing US troops home, we’re not ending the war. War may be ending for the US, but it’s not going to end for the Afghans.”