Defense Secretary Austin to Review Trump’s Last-Minute Withdrawal of Troops From Afghanistan, Iraq

WASHINGTON—The Pentagon’s new chief is expected to review troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq in an effort to examine American strategy in two conflicts, following former President

Donald Trump’s

drawdown of forces there, according to defense officials.

President Biden’s defense secretary,

Lloyd Austin,

is facing a slew of issues in the U.S. and around the world, but Mr. Trump’s decision to quickly withdraw more than 3,000 troops from the two conflicts before he left office this month forces the White House to confront how it will manage the long-running wars.

In his confirmation hearing last week, Mr. Austin indicated he would review the strategies and resources in those conflicts, but left vague his view on the threats either conflict poses and how they are matched by troop levels and other military capabilities.

Mr. Austin’s spokesman,

John Kirby,

said officials hadn’t yet made a formal decision to review troop levels in either country.

“It stands to reason that the incoming administration will want to better understand the status of operations in both places and the resources being applied to those missions,” he said. “Nothing has changed about our desire to defend the American people from the threat of terrorism, while also making sure we are appropriately resourcing our strategy.”

Mr. Kirby said any decisions on troop levels would be taken in consultation with the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. He didn’t say who would be conducting the review nor when it could be completed.

Mr. Trump, who had railed against what he called “endless foreign wars,” drew American forces down in Iraq and Afghanistan to 2,500 personnel in each country this month, in an effort to bring the longstanding military engagements to a close.

The decision to pull troops out from Afghanistan was more contentious than the decision to remove troops from Iraq. Top military officials and some lawmakers believed pulling troops from Afghanistan should be based on conditions on the ground, including levels of violence, not on a political timetable.

Top military officials have said in recent months that the remaining force may be too small to conduct counterterrorism operations, and train and advise local fighters, while also providing enough security for the American contingent on the ground.

Mr. Biden has few good options, analysts have said. Sending more troops back into either war theater is politically perilous, while reducing them further too quickly could accelerate violence and reverse whatever gains military officials have achieved there.

Helping to facilitate Mr. Biden’s decision is Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army general who is intimately familiar with the issues after having led Central Command, which oversees the wars, before his retirement in 2016.

Marine

Gen. Frank McKenzie,

the head of U.S. Central Command, declined in an interview to speculate on a review or any potential changes to troop levels. Gen. McKenzie noted that the size of the force in Afghanistan contributed by Washington’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies exceeds the size of the U.S. contribution for the first time ever.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, there are pressing security challenges.

Within days of its tenure, the Biden administration said it told its Afghan counterparts that it would review the continuing peace talks with the Taliban, according to a White House statement.

National security adviser

Jake Sullivan

told Afghan national security adviser

Hamdullah Mohib

that the review would assess “whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders,” the White House statement said.

He didn’t identify troop levels in a public readout of the conversation.

Under a 2020 agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, all U.S. troops would withdraw by May and the Taliban would make security guarantees. But since that agreement, violence has surged.

In Iraq, one day after Mr. Biden’s inauguration, a double suicide bombing in a crowded market killed at least 32 people, marking one of the deadliest attacks there since the collapse of Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack.

Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com and Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com

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[Source : The Wall Street Journal]

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