General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, troops Bagram Afghanistan
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addresses troops at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on Nov. 28, 2019. President Donald Trump is expected to order the US military to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia by the time he leaves office in January 2021. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: US President Donald Trump is expected to order the US military to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia by the time he leaves office in January, using the end of his time in power to significantly pull back US forces from far-flung conflicts around the world.

Under a draft order circulating at the Pentagon on Monday, the number of US forces in Afghanistan would be halved from the current deployment of 4,500 troops, officials said.

In Iraq, the Pentagon would trim force levels slightly below the 3,000 troops that commanders had previously announced. And in Somalia, virtually all of the more than 700 troops conducting training and counterterrorism missions would leave.

Taken together, the cuts reflect Trump’s long-standing desire to stop shouldering the cost of long-running military engagements against insurgencies in failed and fragile countries in Africa and the Middle East, a grinding mission that has spread since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Consequences

But the president’s aspirations have long run into resistance, as his own national security officials argued that abandonment of such troubled countries could have catastrophic consequences - such as when the United States pulled out of Iraq at the end of 2011, leaving a vacuum that fostered the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Trump has also repeatedly pushed to withdraw from Syria, but several hundred US troops remain stationed there, partly to protect coveted oil fields held by US-backed Syrian Kurdish allies from being seized by the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria. The current deliberations over withdrawals would not affect those in Syria, officials said.

The plan under discussion to pull out of Somalia is said to not apply to US forces stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where US drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based, according to officials familiar with the internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Keeping those air bases would mean retaining the military’s ability to use drones to attack militants with Al Shabab, the Al Qaida-linked terrorist group - at least those deemed to pose a threat to American interests. The smaller number of troops that would remain in Iraq and Afghanistan also would be sufficient to maintain some ability to carry out counterterrorism raids and strikes, officials said.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Trump said in a Twitter post last month that he wanted all 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan home by Christmas, but top military and national security aides advised against such a precipitous withdrawal. The president eventually agreed to the smaller drawdown, officials said.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said last month that the United States would withdraw about 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by early next year - indirectly rebuking Gen. Mark A. Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for openly questioning that timeline.

Shortly before Trump fired Defence Secretary Mark Esper last week and installed Christopher Miller as the acting Pentagon chief, Esper had sent a classified memo to the White House expressing concerns about accelerating the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, a senior administration official said.

Conditions on the ground were not yet right, Esper is said to have written, citing continuing violence, the dangers a rapid pullout could pose for the remaining troops, the effect on alliances and fear of undermining peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The memo was reported earlier by The Washington Post.

Warning from Mitch McConnell

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, delivered a thinly veiled warning to Trump from the Senate floor Monday, suggesting that the president would put himself at risk of squandering his record of accomplishment in the Middle East and repeating the mistakes of former President Barack Obama, a predecessor he loathes.

“A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm,” McConnell said. For a leader who has loyally stood by Trump on most domestic policy issues, the departure was notable.

“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fuelled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”

Exiting foreign conflicts - and Afghanistan in particular - has been a central component of Trump’s “America First” agenda since he ran for office in 2016. That appeal has particularly animated his base of populist voters, many of them veterans who have grown weary of their roles in long-standing wars. The president views his record on this issue as important to any political future he might pursue.

The proposal to draw down to about 2,000 to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan comes as the country’s forces are besieged in the south and the north. Morale is low among Afghan security forces, and the uncertainty has led local political leaders to cut deals with the advancing Taliban.

October was the deadliest month for civilians since September 2019, according to data compiled by The New York Times. More than 200 civilians were killed.

Special Operations forces

Most US troops in Somalia, the war-torn nation in the Horn of Africa, are Special Operations forces stationed at a small number of bases across the country. Their missions include training and advising Somali army and counterterrorism troops and conducting kill-or-capture raids of their own targeting Al Shabab militants.

Trump’s push to leave Somalia before the end of his term comes at a delicate time: Somalia is preparing for parliamentary elections next month and a presidential election scheduled for early February. The removal of US troops could complicate any ability to keep election rallies and voting safe from Al Shabab bombers. It also comes at a time of political turmoil in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army has also battled Al Shabab.

The timing “could not be any worse,” said Brittany Brown, who worked on Somalia policy at the National Security Council under Obama and Trump. She said she did support pulling out of Somalia overall.

“This is not the time to do it, because this election is really important - this one matters a lot,” said Brown, who is now the chief of staff of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization focused on deadly conflicts. “I hope this doesn’t send Somalia back into failed-state chaos, because this would embolden Al Shabab.”