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SecDef Austin, Biden admin planning review of Trump’s Afghan, Iraq troop cuts

Marines and sailors load onto a KC-130 aircraft, at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.(Photo by Staff Sgt. John Jackson/Released)
January 27, 2021

President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is preparing to review President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw some 3,000 U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq in the days before the end of his presidential term.

Defense officials who spoke to the Wall Street Journal said Austin is expected to launch a review of the Trump administration troop cuts. Austin’s spokesman, John Kirby, said Pentagon officials haven’t yet decided on the review process but said, “It stands to reason that the incoming administration will want to better understand the status of operations in both places and the resources being applied to those missions.”

Kirby told the WSJ any decisions on troop levels would be taken in consultation with the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. Kirby did not say who might conduct a review of the Trump-era troop cuts or when the review would be complete.

During his Senate confirmation hearing, Austin himself said he would review the U.S. strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq, but offered few specifics towards the Biden administration goals in those countries.

“I would certainly like to see this conflict end with a negotiated settlement and we’re going to make every effort that we can to ensure that that happens,” Austin said. “In accordance with what the President-elect wants to see, I think we want to see in Afghanistan in the future that does not present a threat to America.”

The review plan comes after the outgoing Trump administration cut thousands of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq in the final weeks of his presidential term.

U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since the fall of 2001 — nearly 20 years. U.S. troops have also been in Iraq since 2003, with a withdrawal in 2011 before U.S. troops returned to help combat the growing ISIS threat in 2014.

The Trump administration gradually reduced troop levels in Afghanistan after reaching a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. Between March and July 2020, the number of troops in Afghanistan dropped from around 13,000 to around 8,600. The troop levels fell further to about 4,500 by November and in November, then-acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced the U.S. would cut another 2,000 troops from Afghanistan by Jan. 15, down to 2,500 total in the country. Miller also announced another 500 U.S. troops would be pulled from Iraq, reducing the troop total there from about 3,000 to about 2,500.

The Trump administration completed the troop drawdown by Jan. 15, just five days before Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20. The troop cut met the Trump administration’s announced schedule despite a provision in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), that bars the use of military funds for troop cuts below 4,000 in Afghanistan until the Pentagon completes an assessment of the risks posed by such a pullout.

The NDAA similarly limits troop reductions below 2,000 without a Pentagon review.

Under the U.S.-Taliban agreement, U.S. troops are expected to withdraw entirely from Afghanistan within the 14-month period since the deal went into effect. That timeline would set May as the deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops.

During the presidential campaign, Biden said he was would end the U.S. involvement in “endless wars that don’t have any end in sight” but also said some U.S. troops would remain in the Middle East. “The only presence we should have is a counterterrorism presence, not a counterinsurgency presence,” Biden said, adding “We have to be in a position where we can make it clear that, if need be, we could respond to terrorist activities coming out of that region directed toward the United States. It does not require a large force presence.”

The Biden administration has already told its Afghan counterparts it would review the ongoing peace process with the Taliban. National security adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly told Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib the review would examine “whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”