JEDDAH: The US will pull almost half its troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan by November, the American military commander for the Middle East said on Wednesday.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said the reduction in Iraq from 5,200 troops to 3,000 reflected the Trump administration’s confidence in the ability of Iraqi security forces to handle the militant threat from Daesh.
In Afghanistan, the US reduced its presence to 8,600 troops in June, and it will now drop to 4,500 by November.
Speaking in Iraq on Wednesday, McKenzie said the US could continue supporting the Iraqi military in its fight against Daesh, but said the “ultimate goal” was an Iraq where local forces by themselves could prevent the extremists from returning. The remaining US troops would continue advising and assisting Iraqi security forces as they attempt to root out remnants of Daesh.
“The US decision is a clear demonstration of our continued commitment to the ultimate goal, which is an Iraqi security force that is capable of preventing a Daesh resurgence and of securing Iraq’s sovereignty without external assistance. The journey has been difficult, the sacrifice has been great, but the progress has been significant,” he said.
US troops invaded Iraq in 2003 and left in 2011, but returned in 2014 after Daesh overran large parts of Iraq. Although US President Donald Trump has talked of withdrawing completely from Iraq, Pentagon officials have cautioned that a US troop presence remains necessary to guard against a Daesh resurgence and to help the Iraqi government limit the political and military influence of Iran, which supports militias operating inside Iraq.
The pullout will take the US presence in Iraq to its lowest level since President Barack Obama cut troops to a token force in 2011. Obama was forced to reverse course by the rise of Daesh, taking the number of troops inside Iraq back over 5,000 as part of an international coalition to combat the militants.
US forces have been in Afghanistan since 2001 when they invaded in response to the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda, for whom Afghanistan was a haven under Taliban rule. The US-led invasion quickly toppled the Taliban from power, but the ensuing conflict dragged on far longer than expected.
In June, McKenzie said the number of US troops in Afghanistan had dropped to 8,600, the level the US agreed to in a February peace deal with the Taliban that also calls on the US to withdraw entirely by next spring.
McKenzie said in recent weeks that he had doubts about a full withdrawal because of questions about the Taliban’s continued relationship with Al-Qaeda and high levels of violence in Afghanistan.