The U.S. military has met its goal of reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan to around 2,500 by Friday, a withdrawal that appears to violate a last-minute congressional ban.
President Donald Trump, who ordered the cut in November last year, said on Thursday that the troop level in Afghanistan had reached its lowest level in 19 years, although he did not mention the number.
Last February, his administration struck a deal with the Taliban to reduce US troops in stages and return to zero by May 2021, though it’s unclear how the new administration will proceed.
The acting US Secretary of Defense confirmed the withdrawal in a statement on Friday.
“This reduction in forces is an indication of continued US support for the Afghan peace process and our adherence to the commitments made in both the US-Taliban agreement and the US-Afghanistan joint declaration. Moving forward, as the Department continues its planning to further reduce U.S. troop strengths to zero by May 2021, any future withdrawals of this type will remain conditional.
President-elect Joe Biden, who has advocated for maintaining a small counterterrorism force in Afghanistan to ensure that armed groups like al-Qaeda cannot launch attacks against the United States, faces a number questions about Afghanistan.
The first is how to proceed and whether further downsizing is required.
In his brief statement, Trump alluded to his long-standing desire to leave Afghanistan completely.
“I will always be determined to end endless wars,” he said, referring to the American wars that have dragged on in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq for much of the period since 2003.
Rapid troop reductions
Although senior military officials have warned of a rapid downsizing in Afghanistan, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced on November 17 that he was implementing Trump’s order.
As a result, military commanders have rushed to withdraw more than 1,500 troops from the country in recent weeks.
On Trump’s orders, the commanders also reduced the strength of US troops in Iraq to 2,500 from around 3,000 during the same period.
The Afghanistan decision was seen by some as unnecessarily complicating the decision-making of the new administration.
Trump at the time refused to admit he lost the election and would give in to Biden on January 20.
Some in Congress, including fellow Republicans, opposed Trump’s move.
Under the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress two weeks ago, the Pentagon has been explicitly banned from using money from this year’s or last year’s budget to reduce the number soldiers below 4,000 – or below the number that was in the country on the day the bill was finalized, January 1.
Trump vetoed the measure, but the House and Senate voted to overturn the veto.
The Pentagon has yet to fully explain how it balances its continued withdrawal with the legal ban.
In response to questions on the matter, the Pentagon issued a written statement saying, “The DoD will comply with all statutory provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Exercise 21, including those in Section 1215. that have an impact on the current withdrawal in Afghanistan. ”
He said he was working with the National Security Council “on the most effective ways to ensure consistency in the midst of an earlier withdrawal that is already happening across Afghanistan, and in a way that continues to ‘ensure the safety of American personnel.’
Defense legislation provides for two conditions under which the Pentagon could circumvent the ban – a presidential waiver or a report to Congress assessing the effect of a further withdrawal on the US counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan and the risk to US troops there. -low.
As of Thursday, the Pentagon had met neither of these conditions.
Less than transparent
The ban on completing the withdrawal put the Pentagon in a bind a few weeks after the withdrawal began, which involved a major logistical effort to withdraw materiel as well as troops.
Due to inconsistent military procedures for counting troops in Afghanistan, the figure of 2,500 may be rigged.
The main reason for concern about too rapid a troop withdrawal is what the Pentagon sees as continued Taliban violence against the Afghan government.
Some US officials have questioned whether or not to pull out entirely, in line with the February 2020 deal with the Taliban, if violence remains high.
The Trump administration has also pushed rival Afghan sides to hold talks for a lasting peace in the country. Since September, several rounds of talks have been held, but little progress has been made.
The US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha, the capital of Qatar, provided for the withdrawal of US troops in exchange for security guarantees from the Afghan armed group, which has been waging a rebellion since its fall in a US-led invasion following the attacks of September 11.
The United States had accused the then Taliban regime of harboring al Qaeda fighters, including its leader Osama bin Laden.
Billions of dollars have been spent in America’s longest war that has seen tens of thousands of deaths, overwhelmingly Afghan civilians.
During Biden’s time as vice president, the United States pushed its troop strength in Afghanistan to 100,000 in a failed attempt to force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.
When Trump took office four years ago, there were around 8,500 troops in the country, and he raised it to around 13,000 later that year.
Last month, when meeting with Afghan officials in Kabul and Taliban representatives in Qatar, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had stressed to both sides that to give a chance at the nascent peace talks, they were to quickly reduce levels of violence. .
“Everything else depends on that,” Milley told reporters.
During Milley’s visit, Army Gen. Scott Miller, Commander-in-Chief of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that the Taliban had stepped up their attacks on Afghan forces, especially in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and against roads and other infrastructure.