US military anticipates Trump will issue order to plan for further troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq


(CNN)US military commanders are anticipating that a formal order will be given by President Donald Trump as soon as this week to begin a further withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq before Trump leaves office on January 20, according to two US officials familiar.

The Pentagon has issued a notice to commanders known as a “warning order” to begin planning to drawdown the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops and 2,500 in Iraq by Jan 15, the officials said. Currently there are approximately 4,500 US troops in Afghanistan and 3,000 troops in Iraq.

The Pentagon and White House did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

While Monday’s news indicates that the Pentagon appears ready to withdraw thousands more US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, it also suggests that Trump may fall short of fulfilling one of his core promises to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan before he leaves office.

    On October 7 Trump tweeted: “We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas!”

    Sweeping changes at the Pentagon

    US military officials have long stressed that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan should be conditions based, including the Taliban breaking its ties to al Qaeda and making progress in peace talks with the Afghan government, two conditions that have yet to be met.

    But despite the lack of progress, the Trump administration has already substantially reduced US troops in the country by more than 50%, recently bringing the number of US military personnel there down to about 4,500, the lowest levels since the earliest days of the post 9/11 campaign.

    Trump made bringing American troops home a theme of his reelection campaign but the future of US forces in Afghanistan has remained uncertain amid the mixed messages coming from the administration.

    National security adviser Robert O’Brien has advocated for a more accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan irrespective of conditions on the ground, something made more feasible by the installation of White House loyalists in senior defense posts.

    Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley had pushed back on an earlier announcement from O’Brien suggesting an aggressive timeline for troop withdrawals that appeared to be irrespective of conditions.

    “Robert O’Brien, or anyone else, can speculate as they see fit, I am not going to engage in speculation, I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I’m aware of in my conversations with the President,” Milley told NPR on October 11.

    Sweeping changes at the Pentagon last week have put Trump loyalists in place and knowledgeable sources told CNN’s Jake Tapper last week that the White House-directed purge at the Defense Department may have been motivated by the fact that former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and his team were pushing back on a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan that would be carried out before the required conditions on the ground were met.

    Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller sent a seemingly contradictory message to the force on Friday saying the US must continue its battle against al Qaeda and the terrorist forces behind 9/11 while also saying it was time to bring troops home.

    “This war isn’t over,” Miller wrote in his message. “We are on the verge of defeating al Qaida and it’s associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish. Indeed, this fight has been long, our sacrifices have been enormous, and many are weary of war — I’m one of them — but this is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role,” he wrote in reference to the current US role of supporting counterterrorism campaigns such as the one in Afghanistan.

      “All wars must end. Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home,” Miller added.

      This story is breaking and will be updated.

      CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Vivian Salama and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.