Majority Leader McConnell leads chorus of bipartisan, shocked opposition to the 11th hour order read by Acting Defense Secretary Miller.
Miller’s Tuesday announcement ended several days of speculation and reporting that Trump would seek to accelerate drawdowns from the “endless wars” that he vowed to end as a presidential candidate in 2016. But defense officials declined to say whether the situation met any of the conditions that administration officials had previously said would allow a safe withdrawal.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban has still not renounced al-Qaida — a key precondition for withdrawal in the U.S.-Taliban agreement inked last February. The insurgent group has also upped its attacks in recent months, with October seeing the highest civilian death toll in Afghanistan in over a year.
In his Pentagon remarks, Miller characterized the reductions as a “successful and responsible conclusion” to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq — even as defense officials detailing the announcement to reporters earlier in the day insisted that thousands of troops would remain to “carry out our mission with our allies and our partners.”
It was a jarring juxtaposition that appeared to be an effort to balance the political demands of a president eager to take credit for “ending” wars with the deep concerns of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“We owe this moment to the many patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice and their comrades who carry forward their legacy,” Miller said. “In light of these tremendous sacrifices, and with great humility and gratitude to those who came before us, I am formally announcing that we will implement President Trump’s orders to continue our repositioning of forces from those two countries.”
Miller caught himself after mistakenly saying that the United States would meet a withdrawal deadline of Jan. 15, “2001” — accidentally conflating 2021 with the year the Afghanistan conflict began.
The United States currently has roughly 4,500 troops in Afghanistan and about 3,000 in Iraq. Officials declined to address reports that Trump has also ordered the withdrawal of the roughly 700 special operators in Somalia.
Defense officials insisted earlier on Tuesday that the proper conditions had been met to allow the troop drawdowns without damaging U.S. national security or the ongoing mission to support Taliban-Afghan peace talks that are meant to end the war in Afghanistan. But they refused to answer repeated questions about which conditions had been met, and they declined to address a recent, classified memo from former Defense Secretary Mark Esper warning the White House that the situation on the ground in Afghanistan had not progressed enough to allow further troop cuts.
That memo, reported by the Washington Post, warned of the ongoing attacks by the Taliban, the risk that a rapid pull-out would endanger the remaining U.S. troops, potential damage to the ongoing peace negotiations and possible damage to alliances.
On Tuesday, officials speaking to Pentagon reporters effectively dismissed or abandoned major precepts of the February agreement with the Taliban. As recently as October, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told NPR that a U.S. withdrawal was conditioned on the Taliban reducing its violence and severing its ties with al-Qaida.
Yet asked specifically about the ongoing ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida, a defense official said, “Al-Qaida has been in Afghanistan for decades and the reality is we’d be fools to say they are going to leave tomorrow.”
“The solution in Afghanistan is to broker a power sharing or some form of agreement whereby the two…can live side-by-side in peace,” the official continued, referring to the current Afghan government and the Taliban. “One is not going to militarily defeat the other nor are we going to engage in a decades-long war to that end, which we will not meet. We feel this is the best decision to drive towards the peace agreement that we’ve been working on.”