WASHINGTON — First Syria, now Afghanistan.
President Donald Trump has directed the Pentagon to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in coming months, with an eye towards ending the 17-year deployment of American forces there, a U.S. official confirmed to Military Times.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that more than 7,000 service members will begin returning from Afghanistan in coming weeks, per a White House order. The move comes just a day after Trump signaled plans to remove all U.S. forces from Syria, declaring that “We have won against ISIS.”
The U.S. official said there is no timeline set for the return of the troops.
The news also comes on the same day as the announced resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who said he is leaving the administration so Trump can find a military leader “whose views are better aligned with yours.”
The withdrawal announcement also comes amid news first reported by Military Times that Erik Prince’s former security contractor firm, Blackwater USA, had announced its return. Prince has lobbied the Trump administration since the president took office to privatize the war in Afghanistan.
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Mattis referenced several conflicts with Trump in his resignation letter, including Trump’s lack of support for American alliances in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Like the Syria withdrawal, the rapid reduction in U.S. forces in Afghanistan represents an abrupt reversal of previous administration policies. Earlier this month, Mattis said the president and the country were “still committed to this effort” and the Taliban still posed a formidable threat in the region.
Last month, in a nomination hearing to take over U.S. Central Command, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the nominee to lead CENTCOM, said terrorist groups in the country still represented a credible threat to the American homeland. He added that despite years of training from coalition troops, local security forces still did not have the ability to defend the Afghan government without assistance.
“They’re not there yet,” he said. “If we left precipitously right now, they would not be able to successfully defend their country.”
Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign promised less U.S. military intervention overseas, but after he took office increased the U.S. presence in both the Middle East and Afghanistan upon the advice of his military commanders.
A 7,000-service member cut would roughly half the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan today. Troops are serving in training and support roles, with less direct contact with enemy fighters.
Still, this year has proven to be deadly for American troops in the country. At least 14 since the start of the year. More than 2,400 U.S. military personnel have died since the initial invasion of American forces in 2001.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.