When Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced Tuesday that the U.S. military will halve its troop presence in Afghanistan by late January, he was voicing the moderate option.
Four sources knowledgeable about the Trump administration’s internal Afghanistan debate tell The Daily Beast that a minority view amongst top Trump advisers remains that the president should go down far beyond the 2,500-strong force Miller unveiled, down to practically zero by the time Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
That option, far less developed internally than the accelerated drawdown, is referred to as an “Embassy-based presence.” Following a troop withdrawal, the option entails an increased complement of special operations forces, CIA officials and a Marine company from the special-purpose task force set up after the 2012 Benghazi disaster to provide greater embassy security.
Its advocates, the sources said, include Miller’s new senior adviser at the Pentagon, Doug Macgregor; White House personnel chief John McEntee, who was an architect of last week’s Pentagon purge; and Trump’s eldest son, Don Jr.
Miller’s announcement would seem to settle the issue, and the logistical challenge of reducing from 5,000 troops to an Embassy-based presence in two months is enormous. “We announced the administration’s plans for Iraq and Afghanistan today. They do not include a drawdown to zero or another similar alternative,” said a senior Pentagon official.
“If they don’t make a decision in the next couple weeks, the window to do a full withdrawal by Jan. 15-20 closes,” said a source familiar with the internal discussion.
But the zero-option advocates believe that Trump himself, who has long expressed antipathy for the Afghanistan war even while escalating it, is on their side, and might grow changeable—especially, the sources said, as he comes to accept that he’s lost re-election and considers his legacy. However, two sources familiar with the president’s thinking on this said, he is amenable to the idea that a reduction to the 2,500 figure would in itself count to Trump as fulfilling his promise to “end endless wars”—even as they continue.
“The president is open to accepting that as a win on ending these foreign wars,” a senior Trump administration official said. “There are still a number of people close to him who are trying to nudge him to go farther. He has not come down hard on either side [yet], but there are still officials who believe in his ‘America First’ promises who are telling him that anti-Trump personnel do not want him to go big.”
Last week, Trump purged the Pentagon leadership, firing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and three other senior officials. In their place are loyalists, and leading them is Miller, a former Green Beret who first deployed to Afghanistan ahead of the 2001 invasion.
Miller, in his first public comments at the Pentagon—which lasted eight minutes, after which he took no questions—used the rhetoric of bringing the 19-year war to a “successful and responsible conclusion” while announcing what amounts to a residual force. He collapsed the difference between a drawdown and a complete withdrawal. If Trump doesn’t wildly upend the drawdown Miller announced, he will be the third U.S. president to hand off the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to his successor. Biden will inherit from Trump an accord with the Taliban that stipulates a full U.S. withdrawal by May, but it is uncertain whether Biden will accept that.
Getting to agreement on a 2,500-troop presence has been arduous. The drawdown ran into a wall of Republican opposition even before Miller announced it, even as elected Republicans rarely criticize Trump when he isn’t seeking to remove troops from a war zone. After Miller’s statement, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee who is retiring from Congress, called it a mistake. “Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing—met no condition—that would justify this cut,” he said in a statement.
Much of the senior leadership of the uniformed military rejects a drawdown as a giveaway to the Taliban without reciprocal steps toward peace. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly feuded with Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser, over the troop cut. But O’Brien is said to oppose zeroing out. Representatives from the White House and the National Security Council didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Lurking in the background is the effect either option will have on the inter-Afghan peace talks that followed the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal accord. Bitter and barely under way, the talks have always been expected to yield a power-sharing agreement between the combatants. And they’ve occurred under a backdrop of intensified Taliban violence against government forces that the military recently warned jeopardizes the whole accord.
On Monday, Miller sent a memo around the Pentagon that many saw as an instruction not to resist or otherwise obstruct a drawdown. The first of his listed “goals” for his brief tenure is to “[b]ring the current war to an end.” He quoted the cheating New England Patriots coach Bill Belichek to say that the “mindset” of the Pentagon should be “Do your job… focus on your assignment. Complete the task at hand.”
It reflected the reality that the greatest resistance to an accelerated troop reduction comes from within the Pentagon. “That was essentially a [warning] shot to say that you need to carry out what the established authorities are telling you, a shot against the uniformed military which may be resisting this,” one of the sources familiar with the debate said.
Yet Miller didn’t “bring the current war to an end.” In his remarks, he described the drawdowns as heralding “the next phase of our campaign to defeat terrorists.” In a memo on Friday, Miller said the war on al-Qaeda “isn’t over. We are on the verge of defeating al Qaeda and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.”
“Today’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw more troops from Afghanistan and bring the total down to 2500 service members in this war-torn country is welcome news. It also puts us closer to realizing the full withdrawal of American troops consistent with the Doha agreement with the Taliban and, most importantly, our national interests,” Ruger told The Daily Beast.
“President Trump should continue to find ways to responsibly decrease American’s exposure in Afghanistan and ensure that his historic agreement to end America’s longest war is not easily unwound by those who would have us stay in this war endlessly. We look forward to welcoming all of our brave troops home from Afghanistan.”