Trump to cut troop levels in Afghanistan but stops short of full withdrawal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will sharply reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 before he leaves office, the Pentagon announced on Tuesday, stopping short of the complete withdrawal Trump threatened to carry out by Christmas.

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Trump’s decision to limit himself to a partial withdrawal was first reported by Reuters on Monday and has triggered warnings from critics who say it will undermine security and hurt fragile peace talks with the Taliban.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who Trump installed last week after firing Mark Esper, confirmed the drawdown and also outlined a modest withdrawal of forces in Iraq that will reduce troop levels there from 3,000 to 2,500.

“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,” Miller said, without taking questions from reporters.

“This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives, supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.”

Moments later, the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned against any major changes in U.S. defense or foreign policy in the next couple of months – including major troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

U.S. and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda.

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It was those ties that triggered U.S. military intervention in 2001 following the al Qaeda Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Thousands of American and allied troops have died in fighting in Afghanistan since then.

Some U.S. military officials had been urging Trump to keep U.S. troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

The withdrawal stops short of his pledge on Oct. 7, when Trump said on Twitter here “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

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