The U.S. is preparing to reduce its troops in Iraq to 3,000, down from 5,200, by the end of this month, the top commander in the Middle East announced Wednesday.
The announcement makes public plans that have been in the works for months, as President Trump has sought to make good on campaign promises to withdraw troops from foreign entanglements before the 2020 election.
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told a small group of reporters that the drawdown was possible because Iraqi security forces are increasingly capable of taking on the pockets of ISIS fighters still seeking to reconstitute territory within Iraq. But he cautioned that the Iraqi military isn’t yet sophisticated enough to carry on the fight with U.S. support and that he believed that the United States should maintain a presence in Iraq.
“We’re a little ways away from that from that now, but we’re certainly a lot closer than we were two or three years ago to realizing that goal,” he said, referring to Iraq’s ability to fight ISIS without U.S. help. Although the United States wants to “get smaller over time,” he said later, “I think there’s a place for us in Iraq.”
Trump in August said that the United States would be “leaving [Iraq] shortly.”
McKenzie said that the withdrawal won’t change the military’s ability to defend its troops, and that the United States will maintain its Patriot missile defense batteries and short-range defense capabilities at its remaining bases. He also said that even at the reduced troop levels, he has adequate resources to counter Iran. Militia groups loyal to Tehran have continued to launch low-level rocket attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq throughout the summer, but there have been no casualties.
“I continue to believe that Iran has an objective of ejecting the United States from the theater and from the region,” McKenzie said. “They see Iraq as a battleground for that, and frankly I think they have been thwarted in that goal. We have what we need to maintain a rough deterrence against Iran across the theater.”
In part, the withdrawal is possible because the kind of assistance that the Iraqis need now doesn’t require as many U.S. troops, McKenzie said. Iraqi forces “are actually fighting fairly effectively on the ground,” according to McKenzie, but still need help streamlining the logistics of warfighting.
“In order to be able to stand completely alone, you want to be able to produce units from your force generation capacity, you want to be able to feed them intelligence on the ground to direct them to the target you want to hit, you want to be able to supply them in combat, you want to be able to treat them medically — what I call the higher echelons of war,” McKenzie said.
“That’s still where we have more work to do. That’s why it actually takes fewer people to do it. It’ll take perhaps more specialized people as we go forward with that.”
Speaking by phone from the region, McKenzie also said that he has not been ordered to withdraw troops in Afghanistan below a current target of 4,500 troops “by late October.” That level will allow U.S. troops to continue to prevent Al Qaeda or ISIS from gaining a foothold in ungoverned spaces, McKenzie said.
“It’s still my assessment that if you want to keep going down, then we need to see concrete things from the Taliban,” McKenzie said — including a true commitment to an intra-Afghan dialogue, a sustained reduction in violence, and a break with al Qaeda. All of those expectations were laid out in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal inked in early 2020. But so far, McKenzie said, “The Taliban has still not shown conclusively that they’re going to break with Al Qaeda.”
A White House spokesman on Tuesday told reporters traveling on Air Force One that another announcement on Afghanistan is expected in the coming days.
Trump has expressed repeated frustration with U.S. deployments around the globe and in recent months has ordered a spate of withdrawals, from Afghanistan, Iraq and Germany.
In March, U.S. forces began pulling back from bases across Iraq, turning them over to Iraqi security partners. At the time, Pentagon officials insisted that the base hand-offs were part of a long-planned consolidation that reflected the success of the anti-ISIS fight — not concerns over the ongoing rocket attacks by Iran-linked proxy militias. But McKenzie in August said that the attacks contributed to the decision to consolidate U.S. bases.
“We have not pulled back because of the threat from Iran,” McKenzie said Wednesday. “What we have done is re-posture ourselves to be more effective.”
McKenzie also said Wednesday that he continues to “dig” for concrete evidence linking reporting of a bounty program targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan to Russia.
“I have yet to see evidence that’s compelling to me,” McKenzie said. “The evidence is worrisome. I am confident Russians don’t mean us well in Afghanistan, but I cannot find a specific link to a discrete event that would tell me at a high level of certainty that they paid money to cause this specific event to occur.”