U.S. to cut troops in Afghanistan and Iraq by January

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WASHINGTON | Almost 20 years after the September 11 attacks, the United States will reduce the number of its troops in Afghanistan and Iraq in mid-January 2021, thus keeping a promise made by Donald Trump despite the fears of its allies that extremist groups get stronger.

About 2,000 soldiers will have withdrawn from Afghanistan on January 15, and 500 others will have left Iraq to leave only 2,500 troops in each country, announced Tuesday the new American Minister of Defense by interim, Christopher Miller.

The withdrawal will come as Donald Trump, who had promised in 2016 to put an end to “endless wars”, cedes power to Democrat Joe Biden five days later.

This decision reflects the wish of the US president to “bring a successful and responsible end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to bring our courageous soldiers home,” Miller said.

His predecessor Mark Esper, sacked last week, pleaded for the status quo, like other military officials opposed to a withdrawal as long as violence does not decrease on the ground.

“By May, President Trump hopes to bring all the military back to safety,” White House adviser on national security Robert O’Brien said.

Concerned allies

Nearly 7,000 American soldiers have died and more than 52,000 have been wounded since the launch of military offensives in Afghanistan in 2001 and then in Iraq two years later, according to the Pentagon.

But the announcement raises fears, in the United States and around the world, of a resurgence of extremist groups, nearly 20 years after the September 11, 2001 attacks fomented by Al-Qaeda, then under the protection of the Afghan Taliban.

And if the self-proclaimed “caliphate” of the Islamic State group collapsed in March 2019, the jihadists continue to sow terror.

The leader of the Republican majority in the Senate Mitch McConnell had estimated Monday that the United States would “abandon” its allies in the event of premature withdrawal.

This would “delight people who wish us harm,” warned Mr. McConnell, yet an ally of Mr. Trump.

Senator Jack Reed, Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee, denounced “a short-sighted approach (which) will not bring peace and which will more surely threaten America”.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that Afghanistan could “once again become a base for international terrorists” if the Alliance’s approximately 12,000 troops withdraw, less than half of whom are American.

The violence continues

France felt that would be a bad idea and Germany, which has 1,300 troops deployed, demanded that this withdrawal be coordinated within NATO.

“We went there together, we changed together, and when the time is right, we will go together”, said the American minister to reassure his allies.

Miller said he spoke to Stoltenberg and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. “We continue to stand by his side as his government works towards a negotiated settlement for peace” with the Taliban.

Peace talks are underway between the Taliban and the Afghan government, following an agreement between Washington and the insurgents that confirms the withdrawal of American forces by mid-2021.

“Al-Qaeda has been in Afghanistan for decades and we would be foolish to say that they will go away tomorrow,” said a senior Pentagon official shortly before Miller’s announcement.

“The solution is to negotiate a power-sharing or some kind of agreement whereby the Taliban and the Afghan people can live side by side in peace,” he said.

But the violence has only increased in recent months.

A November 2 attack on Kabul University left at least 22 people dead, most of them students. It was claimed by the Islamic State group, but the government accused the Taliban of being the instigators.

And in Iraq, seven rockets targeted the American embassy in Baghdad at the time when Christopher Miller intervened, breaking more than a month of truce decreed by the Iraqi factions pro-Iran.

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