The U.S. military is reducing troops in Afghanistan from 8,600 to about 4,500 by early November, the head of U.S Central Command said Wednesday, hours after he announced the withdrawal of more service members from Iraq this month.
“At 4,500 we’re still going to be able to accomplish the core task that we want to accomplish, and we’ve shown more than ample goodwill in our willingness to demonstrate that we don’t want to be an occupying force in this country, but we do have strategic interests, vital interests, that compel us to be certain that these entities such as al-Qaida and ISIS can’t be guests there to attack the United States,” Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie told VOA and two other media outlets in an interview.
In July, the CENTCOM commander told VOA that inter-Afghan dialogue would need to begin and the U.S. would need to be confident that the Taliban would not host Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaida terrorist groups before U.S. troops could be greatly reduced in Afghanistan.
When asked what has changed, McKenzie on Wednesday acknowledged the Taliban “has still not shown conclusively that they are going to break with al-Qaida” and have “continued to go after the Afghan security forces.”
Afghanistan’s warring factions were expected this week to begin their first direct peace talks in Qatar amid U.S.-led international calls for them to seize the “historic opportunity” to end the country’s long war.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Fox News last month that the U.S. planned to go down to fewer than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of November.
Iraq troop presence
Earlier on Wednesday, McKenzie announced during a visit to Iraq that the U.S. troop presence in the country would be cut from 5,200 to 3,000.
McKenzie later told reporters the reduced footprint in Iraq would not affect the U.S. ability to protect its remaining troops.
“Nothing we’re pulling out is going to affect our ability to defend ourselves. And I won’t go into the tactical details, but it will not affect Patriot (missile defense) capability, or any other short-range defense capability in any of our bases. All of those will remain,” the CENTCOM chief said.
Attacks from Iranian-backed proxy forces have continued in recent weeks, McKenzie added, but “none of them have caused any U.S. casualties and no significant Iraqi casualties.”
He said the remaining forces would continue advising and assisting Iraqi partners in “rooting out the final remnants” of the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and “ensuring its enduring defeat.”
“This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi security forces’ increased ability to operate independently,” McKenzie said during his remarks in Iraq.
Bradley Bowman, a defense expert with the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, raised concerns Wednesday that the two announcements could be due to “a calendar or political motivation with respect to the (U.S. presidential) election.”
“This announcement appears to be larger and faster than anticipated,” said Bowman. “This does smack a little bit of a calendar-based withdrawal that we’ve seen time and again is a mistake, but I am pleased that it is not a complete withdrawal.”
U.S. President Donald Trump said while campaigning for president in 2016 that he wanted to end what he called the country’s “endless wars.”
“We have been taking our troops out of Iraq fairly rapidly, and we look forward to the day when we don’t have to be there,” Trump said last month as he hosted Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House. “And hopefully Iraq can live their own lives and they can defend themselves, which they’ve been doing long before we got involved.”
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