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Trump to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq

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WASHINGTON:  President Donald Trump will sharply reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January, the Pentagon announced.

Trump stopped short of a threatened full withdrawal from America’s longest war after fierce opposition from allies at home and abroad who fear it will undermine security and hurt fragile peace talks with the Taliban.

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who Trump installed last week after abruptly firing Mark Esper confirmed the Afghan drawdown and also outlined a modest withdrawal of forces from Iraq to reduce troop levels from 3,000 to 2,500.

“By Jan. 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan, will be 2,500 troops. Our force size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date,” Miller told reporters.

Top Senate Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, cautioned against any major changes in US defence or foreign policy in the next couple of months, including any troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It is extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes in regard to defense or foreign policy,” McConnell, who opposed a pullout, told reporters.

The top Democrat on the committee Representative Adam Smith came out in support of the move – even as he cautioned that it needed to “be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region.”

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was concerning that Trump’s withdrawal was being carried out without close coordination with NATO and that a hasty withdrawal risks making Afghanistan a platform for terrorism once again.

US and Afghan officials are warning of troubling levels of violence by Taliban insurgents and persistent Taliban links to al Qaeda. Some US military officials had been urging Trump to keep US troop levels at around 4,500 for now.

The withdrawal stops short of his pledge on October 7, when Trump said on Twitter here “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

The threat had alarmed US military officials, allies and lawmakers who had fiercely opposed an abrupt, unilateral pullout.

Trump is due to leave office on January 20 after losing this month’s presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden.  The withdrawals could hand Biden a new set of challenges when he takes office.

The Taliban have called on the United States to stick to a February agreement with the Trump administration to withdraw US troops by May. Violence has been rising throughout Afghanistan, with the Taliban attacking provincial capitals prompting US airstrikes.