The Pentagon still plans to complete a drawdown of about 2,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Friday, despite a provision in the 2021 defense budget that blocks troops leaving Afghanistan without the Pentagon first providing Congress with an assessment of the risks of a withdrawal.
In a statement to American Military News, Pentagon spokesman and U.S. Army Major Rob Lodewick said, “Currently, no new orders have been issued which impact the progression of the conditions-based drawdown expected to reach 2,500 (troops) by Jan. 15, 2021.”
On Nov, 17, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced the U.S. plan to reduce troops in Afghanistan by about half, from 4,500 down to 2,500 by Jan. 15. Miller also announced a reduction of troops in Afghanistan from 3,000 to 2,500.
In December, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021, which included a provision that blocks defense funds appropriated for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to pay for a reduction below 4,000 U.S. troops until after the defense secretary consults with the secretary of state and the director of national intelligence to form and submit a report on the risks of the reduction to Congress.
Congress passed the NDAA on Dec. 11, and Trump vetoed the bill on Dec. 23. The process to override the veto was completed on Jan. 1, 2021, and the bill subsequently became law, over Trump’s veto.
It is unclear how many U.S. troops were pulled from Afghanistan prior to the NDAA becoming law and how many troops have since been withdrawn.
Lodewick said as of January 1, around 4,000 troops were still in Afghanistan. Lodewick also said the Pentagon still expects to complete the troop withdrawal by Friday, but did not say how many troops, if any, have left Afghanistan since Jan. 1.
One defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters, said the number of troops in Afghanistan has fallen to about 3,000.
There is a portion of the defense budget provision that allows the president to continue the troop reduction without going through the assessment process with the secretary of defense. The president may instead submit a waiver explaining his reasoning why a troop reduction is “important” to the national interest. Trump has provided no such waiver since the NDAA took effect.
“If they are continuing the drawdown, that would be a violation of the law,” a congressional aide told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.
The White House declined a Reuters request for comment on the issue.
Stopping the U.S. troop drawdown could disrupt the U.S.-backed Afghanistan peace process. A February 2020 agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban called for the removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan within 14 months, by May of 2021.
One defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the troop reduction was already underway by the time the NDAA went into effect and could not be stopped “at a drop of a hat.”
A second provision in the defense budget similarly blocks the president from reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan below 2,000.