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The Pentagon on Friday announced completion of the drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq ordered by President Donald Trump. But the move comes amid increasing attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the continuing threat posed by Islamic State insurgents and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.
In separate statements on the drawdowns, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said that the Jan. 15 deadline set by the president for the reduction of U.S. forces from 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan, and from 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq, had been met.
Miller made no mention of Somalia, and U.S. Africa Command did not immediately respond to a query about whether Trump's deadline for the near-total withdrawal of the estimated 700 troops in that country had been met.
In an email statement Thursday, Maj. Andrew Caulk, spokesman for Joint Task Force-Quartz, said, "Due to force protection and operational considerations, we will not discuss timelines associated with repositioning of forces at this time."
Miller also made no mention of how the U.S. withdrawal will affect NATO's non-combat forces in Afghanistan. The number of NATO troops, including a U.S. contingent, now stands at about 11,000.
In a Jan. 6 virtual address to Germany's Christian Social Union, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he would discuss the status of troops and the way ahead in Afghanistan with Biden administration representatives in February at a NATO ministerial meeting.
Stoltenberg said that 2021 will be a difficult year for decisions on Afghanistan, adding, "There are many challenges, and many uncertainties, but of course, peace talks are the only path to peace, the only way forward to a peaceful negotiated solution."
The White House did not immediately comment on the drawdowns. But in a statement Thursday on the White House website, Trump cited troop withdrawals from war zones as one of the legacies of his administration.
"United States military troops in Afghanistan are at a 19-year low," he said. "Likewise, Iraq and Syria are also at the lowest point in many years. I will always be committed to stopping the endless wars."
The Pentagon statements did not disclose which bases in Afghanistan may have been closed or turned over to Afghan forces, but the U.S. has steadily been abandoning locations as its troop presence is reduced.
In July, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said via Twitter that U.S. troops had left five bases in Helmand, Uruzgan, Paktika and Laghman provinces.
Last week, Khalilzad was in Kabul to discuss the peace negotiations and U.S. withdrawal with Afghan officials, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani refused to meet with him, according to Afghanistan's Tolo News.
In his statement on Afghanistan, Miller said that troop levels had been reduced to 2,500, bringing them "to their lowest levels since 2001."
While pressing for a peace deal, the U.S. and NATO "will continue to execute both our counterterrorism mission and the train, advise and assist mission in support of Afghan Security Forces working to secure peace in their country," he added.
Under the U.S. deal with the Taliban signed last February, all U.S. forces are to withdraw from Afghanistan by May of this year, depending on conditions on the ground.
Both Army Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley demanded that the Taliban cease attacks on Afghan forces and break ties with al-Qaida as conditions for the continued withdrawal of U.S. troops.
However, the attacks have been unrelenting. On Friday, officials charged that 14 Afghan soldiers had been killed in two Taliban attacks in Kandahar and Kunduz provinces, Tolo News reported.
In his statement on Iraq, Miller said that the reduction of U.S. force levels from 3,000 to 2,500 is "consistent with Operation Inherent Resolve's transition from major combat operations and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy" regarding support of the Baghdad government.
"We will continue to have a counterterrorism platform in Iraq to support partner forces with airpower and intelligence," he said.
The drawdowns were completed despite a provision in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, passed last month in an override of Trump's veto, that barred use of appropriated funding for withdrawals from Afghanistan unless the Defense and State Departments gave new assessments of the potential risks.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.