US to continue advise and assist operations in Afghanistan and Iraq after drawdown, Milley says
Stars and Stripes December 2, 2020
WASHINGTON — American troops will continue training Afghan and Iraqi combat forces after the partial U.S. withdrawals from those nations ordered by President Donald Trump last month, the top U.S. general said Wednesday.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States would continue to train, advise and assist missions and the separate counterterrorism operations in those countries even after it removes some 2,500 troops from Afghanistan and about 500 from Iraq by mid-January. Pentagon officials previously declined to provide specific information about what remaining troops in those countries would be assigned to do, especially in Afghanistan.
Trump ordered the new drawdowns to be completed by Jan. 15, five days before he leaves office. The moves will leave about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq at the beginning of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, falling short of Trump’s long-stated promise to remove all American troops from those countries.
Milley’s comments Wednesday were his first public remarks addressing the drawdowns announced Nov. 17 by acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller. The general spoke during a virtual event hosted by the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank.
He defended the drawdown plan in Afghanistan as a move toward an exit from America’s longest war, launched in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. More than 20,000 U.S. troops have been wounded in Afghanistan, and more than 2,200 have died there.
“We believe now that after 20 years, two decades of consistent effort, that we have achieved a modicum of success,” he said, acknowledging the war had been stalemated for at least five years and was likely to end only via ongoing peace talks between the U.S-backed Afghan government and the Taliban.
Milley declined to provide many details about the U.S. withdrawal plans for Afghanistan, citing security concerns.
However, the United States will shut down some bases that it has maintained across the country, reducing its footprint to “a couple of larger bases with several satellite bases that provide the capability to continue our train, advise and assist mission and our counterterrorism mission,” Milley said, noting top generals had approved plans to implement Trump’s order. The largest American bases in Afghanistan include Kandahar Air Field in the country’s south and Bagram Air Field in the east, just north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.
“What comes after that, that will be up to a new administration,” Milley said. “We’ll find that out on the 20th of January and beyond.”
Biden said in September that he supported drawing down some forces from the Middle East and Afghanistan but believed a counterterrorism force probably needed to remain.
Milley said government officials in Iraq have asked the U.S. military to continue training and advising their security forces. Iraq’s military has continued to fight the remnants of the Islamic State group since U.S.-backed government forces removed the terrorists hold on any land in that country in 2017. ISIS maintains as many as 10,000 fighters in cells across the countries, the U.N. warned in August.
Milley said maintaining troops in Iraq would also check Iran and its provocations throughout the Middle East, where it has launched or backed attacks against Saudi Arabia and U.S. troops in Iraq.
“We think that helps contribute towards the interdicting in preventing further aggression by Iran in the region,” Milley said. “We also think that that is important to continue to sustain the successes that have been built in the defeat of the ISIS caliphate so that it doesn’t regenerate and come back.”