On October 7th, President Trump tweeted his intention to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan in his trademark way: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!” It only took a couple of days for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley to issue a rebuttal of the President saying in an NPR interview, “We have a plan, a series of responsible drawdown options, that has been briefed to the president.”
This was followed by a memo to President Trump from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper saying that the conditions for withdrawal had not yet been met by the Taliban. Esper has since been fired for reasons we believe are mostly due to an 18-month long deception of the president conducted by Esper, Ambassador Jeffrey, and others to conceal the number of troops actually in Syria.
President Trump has now appointed Christopher Miller, formerly the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting Secretary of Defense. Miller wasted no time in issuing a letter to all DOD personnel staking out a very different mission than the Esper doctrine of keeping troops deployed in the region as a deterrent force.
In this letter, Miller states that the DOD will be moving into a role of supporting the work of local allies and cooperative countries in finishing the fight against al-Qaeda as opposed to leading this fight ourselves with troops on the ground. Echoing the familiar campaign promise of the President to end “Endless Wars” overseas Miller went on to say:
“We are not a people of perpetual war – it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end. Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.”
The last sentence — it’s time to come home — imparts a great urgency to get this done before Inauguration Day. We observe that the timing of Esper’s dismissal and the immediate replacement by Miller may also be an acknowledgment by a pugnacious, never-say-die, White House that President Trump may not be in office for a second term. We also reason that President Trump could not rely on the current Pentagon leadership to execute his wish to reduce troop levels in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria for reasons we presented earlier today here. Christopher Miller was selected to execute the wishes of the President in this matter.
Today at a DOD press conference, Defense Secretary Miller stated that the U.S. would draw down the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to just 2,500 in each country. While the exact numbers are classified, some 8,000 troops are said to be in Afghanistan and 5,000 in Iraq. The 2,500 slated to remain in each country will be a mix of troops engaged in Signals Intelligence, Logistics, Language Specialists, and ground crew elements for Drone and Military Airlift Command sorties.
The drawdown should not be an issue for the Army or Air Force from a logistics perspective. The Army has 20 years of experience now moving troops into and out of foreign countries in the War on Terror. Air Force C-17s, which would do the heavy lifting of troops and material, are not currently overtasked by operational requirements in other regions of the world. They can be moved quickly to the region to begin the airlift.
We expect chartered civilian airliners, many of which remain idle due to the COVID’s impact on travel, will also be put to use in moving troops home. As the troops tend to pack up to go home much quicker than pack to leave, the roughly eight weeks or so before the January 15th deadline is a large enough window for many troops to return home. As this will be a phased withdrawal many will be home for Christmas with their families.
Given that President Trump has been trying to achieve these drawdowns since 2018, we expect that the Plans Division at the Pentagon will have the details, covering this troop repositioning, in a file cabinet ready to go. That’s what they do: plan for these contingencies should they occur. It will not be an ad-hoc evacuation, but an orderly movement of our troops out of the region.
The question that remains to be answered is what will our future offensive-defensive posture in these countries be? What will operations look like going forward? Secretary Miller seems to have given an answer to that in his letter to the DOD when he wrote that the U.S. would shift from leadership to a supporting role with some 80 partner countries.
Most likely this means the U.S. will provide capabilities in intelligence, weapons, and logistics that partner countries do not possess themselves for example satellite and signals intelligence, training of partner forces, drone operations, advanced weaponry perhaps even air support to ground troops. We expect that limited deployment of Special Operations Forces will continue as well in that support, training, and advisory role.
The timing of this drawdown complicates the big foreign policy picture for an incoming Biden administration (should that occur). A Biden administration would have a difficult time sending those troops back in without providing strong justification for it to the American people. When President Trump was running for office, he pledged repeatedly that he would bring an end to “Endless Wars.” Given that this is not a complete withdrawal of forces, we might recall the words of Winston Churchill speaking of RAF’s victory over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain:
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”