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Editorial: Trump's risky disengagement from Afghanistan, Iraq

Attack on Afghan university leaves 19 dead, 22 wounded (copy)

President Trump's acting defense secretary has announced plans to reduce the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan. However, the country is far from stable, as seen during a Nov. 2 attack at Kabul University in Kabul (above). 

Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced last week that the United States will withdraw 2,000 troops from Afghanistan and 500 from Iraq by mid-January, leaving about 2,500 in each country. It is a risky move, but one we hope is successful.

The decision, foreshadowed months ago by President Donald Trump, was resisted by Mr. Miller’s predecessor, Mark Esper, and apparently by the nation’s military chiefs. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley had called the plan just “speculation.”

The key issue in both countries is whether the reduced U.S. force levels will be adequate to cope with conditions on the ground. The Washington Post reported that last month Secretary Esper sent a classified memo to the president saying that conditions in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been breaking a cease-fire that they promised to observe during peace talks with the Afghan government, had not been met for a withdrawal.

But U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a frequent hawk concerning U.S. engagements in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, struck a somewhat hopeful note in comments on the new drawdown.

He wrote that he was generally supportive of Mr. Trump’s efforts to handle the conflict in Afghanistan and open new opportunities with Pakistan, which has in the past strongly supported the Taliban.

Concerning the ongoing peace talks in Afghanistan, Sen. Graham said, “I am hopeful but very suspicious of any efforts by the Taliban to reject al-Qaeda in any meaningful way. It is not in America’s interests for Afghanistan to sink back into civil war as that is a ripe opportunity for ISIS and al-Qaeda to reemerge in force.”

For that reason, he said, the counterterrorism force Mr. Trump plans to leave in Afghanistan pending the outcome of the peace talks “is imperative, for our own national security,” until conditions on the ground make it unnecessary. “A counterterrorism force in Afghanistan is an insurance policy against another 9/11,” he wrote.

Whether the 2,500 military personnel Mr. Trump plans to leave in Afghanistan is sufficient to meet current conditions is something the senator said he plans to discuss with military commanders in the field. Their recommendations should be given serious consideration.

That appears to be the prudent reaction to Mr. Trump’s drawdown. We hope it works. But our forces in Afghanistan, as long as they remain, must be strong enough to protect themselves and make progress against terrorist cells still operating there. If that means delaying the withdrawal, then it should be delayed.

Meanwhile, the drawdown in Iraq faces similar uncertainty concerning the capabilities and intentions of Iranian-backed militias and the ability of the emerging new government to resist those militias.

Mr. Trump’s desire to disengage is understandable and a fulfillment of sorts of a 2016 campaign pledge. But recent history in Iraq shows the need to understand the risks.

President Barack Obama, cheered on by then Vice President Joe Biden, prematurely removed American troops in 2011, bringing on the near collapse of the country under attack from the Islamic State. That led to the rapid reintroduction of U.S. forces and four years of heavy combat.

That is a scenario that should not be repeated. Both President Trump and President-elect Biden need to tread warily when it comes to disengagement.

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