National security adviser Robert O’Brien also touted the drawdown on Tuesday, echoing Miller’s comments that the move does not reflect a change in policy.
“By May, it is President Trump’s hope that they will all come home safely and in their entirety. I want to reiterate that this policy is not new. This has been the president’s policy since he took office,” O’Brien said at the White House minutes after Miller finished speaking at the Pentagon.
Neither Miller nor O’Brien took questions from reporters.
The comments came as top Republican lawmakers blasted the pace of the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months.
Minutes after the announcement, The Associated Press reported that two Katyusha rockets landed inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, the largest embassy in the world, signaling an end to an informal truce announced by Iran-backed militia in October.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Trump ally, urged the president against making “any earthshaking changes in regards to defense and foreign policy” before leaving office.
“A precipitous drawdown in either Afghanistan or Iraq is a mistake,” McConnell said.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, House Armed Services ranking Republican, also used the word “mistake.”
“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” he tweeted.
Sen. Ben Sasse, Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the withdrawal a “weak retreat” that “is not grounded in reality and will make the world a more dangerous place.” He compared it to former President Barack Obama’s 2011 withdrawal from Iraq that he said “opened the door” for the emergence of the Islamic State.
“Headlines about ‘bringing the boys home’ sound good, but that’s not what’s happening,” Sasse said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Maine Sen. Angus King, an Independent member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who caucuses with the Democrats, called the drawdown “a dangerous move,” stressing that it undermines the U.S. position in negotiations with the Taliban and potentially endangers the American troops who remain in the country.
The U.S. is in the process of drawing down to zero by May in exchange for a set of guarantees from the Taliban, including disavowing terrorist groups and negotiating a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government.
“We entered into an agreement with the Taliban … that involved drawdowns in exchange for conditions that allowed that to take place. Those conditions have not been met,” King said. “At some point you draw down to a certain point and your are endangering the troops that are left.”
At least one Democrat, however, said they agreed with the president’s move. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he had spoken with Miller and believes reducing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops is “the right policy decision.”
“While the history of conflict in the region is complex and predates our direct involvement, after nearly 20 years of armed conflict, Americans and Afghans alike are ready for the violence to end,” he said in a statement.
The president’s order stops short of the full withdrawal from “endless wars” in the region Trump promised during his 2016 campaign and throughout his four years in office. The president wrote in an Oct. 7 tweet that the remaining troops in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas,” alarming lawmakers and top military commanders, who urged a more deliberate drawdown.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a top ally of the president, said he appreciates that the president did not order a full withdrawal, stressing in a brief interview that any reduction of U.S. troop presence should be based on conditions on the ground.
When asked if the decision was motivated simply by the desire to honor a campaign promise, Graham responded: “I think so. I think a lot of it’s that. Obama had that same desire.” But he added: “I do appreciate the president not going to zero. It would become Saigon.”
Trump’s decision to leave a few thousand troops in both countries comes at the recommendation of his top national security team and his most senior military advisers both in theater and in Washington, and is based on security concerns on the ground, senior defense officials said ahead of Miller’s comments.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement that both Miller and O’Brien assured him that the troop drawdown will not impact the U.S.’s ability to thwart terrorist plots originating in the region — a chief concern of several lawmakers, who have pointed to the Taliban’s recent violations of the peace agreement struck this year.
In recent weeks, Trump’s top advisers, including O’Brien and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, argued that going down to 2,500 by early 2021, as opposed to a full withdrawal by that time, was “a responsible middle ground,” said one administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.
“The president understands that a complete withdrawal on this shortened timeline isn’t practical,” said the administration official, who blamed previous Pentagon leadership for slow-rolling the drawdown. “If DoD hadn’t obstructed him for four years we’d be in a different place, but this is where we are.”
The U.S. is currently in the midst of drawing down to 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, and is on track to pull all American troops out by May 2021 under the February peace deal. But in recent months, top U.S. military commanders have argued that violence in Afghanistan is still too high to justify a full withdrawal. As recently as October, officers at U.S. Central Command said they believed the situation in Afghanistan was still too volatile to go below 4,500, and that the Taliban are not negotiating in good faith with the Afghan government.
The most recent DoD Inspector General report on the Afghanistan mission cited “distressingly high” levels of violence that could threaten the peace agreement, and noted that intra-Afghan negotiations that began in September “quickly stalled.”
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan reported to the IG that there were instances of “indirect fire and surface-to-air attacks” against the coalition, including an incident in which the Taliban launched a rocket against a coalition base in Helmand province, according to the report — attacks that would violate the agreement. The Taliban denied responsibility.
Leaving a few thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan is essential for the intelligence operations necessary to keep tabs on the movements of the Taliban and other militant groups, said one former administration official.
“With 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, we can protect the American people, we can protect the Afghan people,” said one senior defense official. “The decision to bring troops home was made at the direction of the president because the two greatest concerns … have been met.”
Matthew Choi, Andrew Desiderio and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.