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Trump prepares to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia

WASHINGTON – President Trump is expected to order the US military to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia before he leaves office in January, using the end of his term to withdraw significantly American forces from distant conflicts. around the world.

Under a draft order circulating to the Pentagon on Monday, the number of US forces in Afghanistan would be halved from the current deployment of 4,500 troops, officials said.

In Iraq, the Pentagon would reduce force levels slightly below the 3,000 troops commanders had previously announced. And in Somalia, almost all of the roughly 700 troops leading training and counterterrorism missions would leave.

Taken together, the cuts reflect Mr. Trump’s long-standing desire to end the cost of long-running military engagements against Islamist insurgencies in bankrupt and fragile countries in Africa and the Middle East, a grinding mission that has expanded since the terrorist attacks in September. 11, 2001.

But the president’s aspirations have long met with resistance, as his own national security officials have argued that abandoning these troubled countries could have catastrophic consequences – as when the United States withdrew from Iraq. at the end of 2011, leaving a vacuum rising for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Trump has also repeatedly pushed to withdraw from Syria, but several hundred US troops remain stationed there, in part to protect the coveted oil fields held by US-backed Syrian Kurdish allies from seizure by the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Current deliberations on withdrawals would not affect those in Syria, officials said.

The plan under discussion to withdraw from Somalia would not apply to US forces stationed in the vicinity of Kenya and Djibouti, where US drones are based carrying out airstrikes in Somalia, according to officials familiar with the forces. internal deliberations that spoke of the state of anonymity.

Keeping those air bases would mean retaining the military’s ability to use drones to attack militants with the Shabab, the terrorist group linked to Qaeda – at least those who are seen as a threat to US interests. The smaller number of troops remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan would also be enough to maintain some capacity to carry out counterterrorism raids and strikes, officials said. Decisions regarding troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were reported earlier by CNN.

Mr. Trump said in a Twitter message last month he wanted the 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan to return home before Christmas, but senior military and national security aides advised against such a hasty withdrawal. The president ultimately agreed to any withdrawal, officials said.

Mr. Trump’s national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said last month that the United States would withdraw about 2,500 troops from Afghanistan early next year – indirectly berating General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. , for openly questioning this timeline.

Shortly before Mr. Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper last week and installed Christopher C. Miller as acting Pentagon chief, Mr. Esper sent a classified note to the White House expressing his concerns about accelerating the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a senior official said an administration official.

Conditions on the ground were not yet good, Mr Esper reportedly wrote, citing the continued violence, the dangers a rapid withdrawal could pose for the remaining troops, the effect on alliances and the fear of undermining. the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghans. government. The memo was reported earlier by the Washington Post.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Majority Leader, issued a thinly veiled warning to Mr. Trump from the Senate on Monday, suggesting the president would risk wasting his record of achievements in the Middle East and repeating the mistakes of former President Barack Obama, a predecessor he hates.

“A rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight those who wish us harm,” said Mr. McConnell. For a leader who staunchly supported Mr. Trump on most domestic policy issues, the departure was notable.

“The consequences of a premature US exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new wave of global terrorism,” McConnell said. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating departure of the Americans from Saigon in 1975.”

Exiting foreign conflicts – and Afghanistan in particular – has been a central component of Mr. Trump’s “America First” agenda since he ran for office in 2016. This call has been particularly strong. animated its base of populist voters, many of whom are veterans who have grown weary. of their roles in long-standing wars. The president sees his record on this issue as important for any political future he may pursue.

Mr Esper’s warning about downsizing was one of the many factors that led to his dismissal. After he left, a group of new officials arrived, including Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army Colonel and a strong supporter of ending the US engagement in Afghanistan.

It is not known whether the rest of NATO and allied troops in Afghanistan – around 7,000 people who mainly form government forces – would also withdraw. But officials said some in the north and west of the country are likely to do so, as they depend on U.S. transportation and, in some cases, protection.

This would leave it to the US forces to advise a major US-Afghan command center, helping the Afghan army to muster its resources and plan its defenses. Much of the rest would belong to about five smaller regional targeting teams – and made up of small detachments of special operations forces – that would help target insurgent groups.

The proposal to reduce to around 2,000 to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan comes as the country’s forces are under siege to the south and north. Morale is low among the Afghan security forces, and uncertainty has led local political leaders to strike deals with the advancing Taliban.

October was the deadliest month for civilians since September 2019, according to data compiled by The New York Times. More than 200 civilians were killed.

Qatar peace talks between Afghan and Taliban negotiators have stalled mainly due to the Afghan government’s reluctance to use the February deal as a guiding document for the talks.

Afghanistan scholars said the accelerated but partial withdrawal could complicate the political choices of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his new national security team, but that it was preferable to a full withdrawal.

“A rapid reduction to 2,500 would narrow Biden’s administration options and undermine peace talks, but not create the total upheaval of zeroing so quickly,” Laurel E. Miller, a former senior official in the Department of State that has worked on Afghan and Pakistani diplomacy Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama, said on twitter last week.

Most of the US troops in Somalia, the war-torn nation of the Horn of Africa, are special operations forces stationed at a small number of bases across the country. Their missions include training and advising the Somali army and counterterrorism troops and conducting raids to kill or capture their own Shabab militants.

Mr Trump’s push to leave Somalia before his term ends comes at a delicate time: Somalia is gearing up for next month’s legislative elections and a presidential election slated for early February. The withdrawal of US troops could complicate any ability to keep electoral rallies and voting safe from Shabab bombers. It also comes at a time of political turmoil in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army has also fought against Shabab.

The timing “couldn’t be worse,” said Brittany Brown, who worked on Somali policy in the National Security Council under the leadership of Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump. She said she supported Somalia’s withdrawal overall.

“Now is not the time to do it, because this election is really important – this one matters a lot,” said Ms Brown, who is now chief of staff for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization. focused on deadly conflicts. “I hope that doesn’t send Somalia back into the chaos of a failed state, because it will embolden Al Shabab.”

It is not clear whether other parts of the US government – such as CIA operatives, the Ambassador and other State Department diplomats who are based in a heavily fortified bunker at Mogadishu airport , the Somali capital – will also withdraw from Somali territory with the military.

Somalia has faced civil war, droughts and violence from Islamist extremists for years. The United States intervened in the country as a peacekeeper at the end of the George Bush administration, but abandoned it shortly after the Battle of the “Black Hawk Down” in 1993, which killed 18 Americans and hundreds of militiamen.

The Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group whose name means “youth,” emerged around 2007 and fought fiercely for control of Somalia with occasional attacks outside its borders, including an attack on the mall Westgate in Nairobi, Kenya in 2013 that killed more than five dozen civilians and a deadly assault on a US air base in Manda Bay, Kenya in January.

Shabab leaders pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012. In 2016, shortly before leaving office, the Obama administration considered them part of the war authorized by Congress against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. . Under the Trump administration, the military sharply increased airstrikes targeting Shabab militants.

Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage and Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan. Jennifer Steinhauer and Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting from Washington.