WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is cutting force levels to 2,500 troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a decision long resisted by the military’s senior leaders, but enacted by acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller after a recent shake-up at the top.
Miller took over as the new defense secretary last week after President Donald Trump fired his predecessor Mark Esper by tweet.
“As a veteran whose life and family was irrevocably changed in the deserts, mountains and cities of Afghanistan along with the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops who have fought there and were forever transformed by their experiences, I celebrate this day,” said Miller, who served with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) through multiple deployments in both countries.
Trump made bringing forces home from Iraq and Afghanistan one of his early campaign pledges.
There are still about 4,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan and about 3,000 in Iraq. Units from the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum; the 44th Air Defense Artillery Regiment at Fort Campbell, Ky.; and the 4th Infantry Division and 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade, Fort Carson, Colo.; are deployed to Afghanistan.
Soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., and III Corps from Fort Hood, Texas, are serving in Iraq and Syria.
There are also members deployed from Air National Guard units from across the country, including air squadrons from Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Washington state, Florida and elsewhere.
The Pentagon did not identify which units would be returning home.
A senior defense official told reporters the decision was made to keep some forces in both countries to support continued negotiations with the Taliban, a political settlement in Afghanistan and continued U.S. operations in Syria.
“At this point we are not going to zero,” the official said. Both force cut levels will be completed by Jan. 15, the official said.
At the White House, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said the remaining forces would be used to protect the embassies and ongoing U.S. military operations in both countries.
“Those troops will defend our embassies and the other agencies of the U.S. government doing important work for this country,” O’Brien said. “They’ll defend our diplomats and deter our foes. By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety.”
Bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and ending America’s 19-year-old “endless wars” has been a rare area where major veterans groups who supported Trump, such as the Concerned Veterans for America, or CVA, and those who supported President-elect Joe Biden, such as VoteVets, have joined forces to lobby on the issue.
Both groups voiced their support for the decision, with some reservations. CVA Executive Director Nate Anderson said the drawdown should include all the troops, not just some of them.
“This will be the 20th holiday season U.S. forces have spent in Afghanistan away from their families,” Anderson said in a letter that CVA sent to the White House on Monday. “We urge you to fully withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by the end of January 2021.”
The reductions would leave forces in Afghanistan at the lowest level since military operations began there in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and the White House made the decision without consulting Congress, a senior Republican lawmaker said Tuesday.
“I have received no explanation at this point on what the administration plans to do as far as reducing troops in various parts of the world,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., lost both her legs in Iraq in 2004 when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was hit by a rocket. She said the decision to withdraw “needs to be carefully planned and safely executed, but instead Trump and his newly installed, unconfirmed lackeys at the Pentagon are undercutting our long-standing allies, potentially dooming the peace process and putting our remaining troops at greater risk.”
Duckworth is often mentioned as a possible candidate to serve in Biden’s Cabinet, possibly as secretary of defense or veterans affairs.
VoteVets senior adviser Will Fischer, also an Iraq veteran, said making this decision so close to a transition to the Biden administration without involving the new administration creates risk for the troops still on the ground.
“Drawing down our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is a positive step, but doing so without full coordination with the incoming administration is extremely dangerous,” Fischer said. “It will be the Biden administration that will need to manage the new troop levels, and it is essential they are fully looped in on this process.”
Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs has monitored the economic and medical costs of both wars for years. It estimates that the United States will have spent more than $6.4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when lifetime medical needs for the veterans who served there are included.
According to Defense Department casualty reports, as of November, 2,311 U.S. military service members have been killed in Afghanistan since operations began; 4,492 were killed in Iraq through the end of combat operations there in 2011. Another 99 military personnel have died since the U.S. military returned to Iraq in 2014 and expanded operations into Syria to defeat the Islamic State group.
In addition, tens of thousands of veterans received life-long injuries while deployed, such as loss of limb, head injuries, cancers or post-traumatic stress. Of the 2.7 million veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, many on multiple deployments, at least 970,000 have life-long medical needs, the Watson Institute reported in 2015.