WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will soon move to withdraw nearly 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, according to multiple news reports Thursday, a decision that comes as the commander-in-chief continued to defend his directive to remove all U.S. troops from Syria.
Trump will dramatically scale back the U.S.’s military presence in Afghanistan in the coming months, according to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, which both cited defense officials familiar with the president’s plans. The White House did not immediately react to the reports. There are roughly14,000 U.S. troops currently on the ground in Afghanistan.
But Wednesday officials did indicate the president was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.
The president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria was met with widespread criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and U.S. foreign allies in the region, who all argued the move could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State terrorist group .
Trump defended his decision on Syria, taking to Twitter to declare it’s time “for others to finally fight” against Islamic State militants remaining in the conflict-torn country.
“Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years,” Trump tweeted Thursday morning, a day after declaring victory over the Islamic State in Syria and abruptly ordering the removal of all 2,000 U.S. troops from the country.
Lawmakers, including several of the president’s closest allies, said they felt blindsided by the news on Syria. A bipartisan coalition of six senators including Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who have generally been supportive of the president’s policies, issued a letter to Trump late Wednesday evening urging him to reconsider the removal of troops.
“If you decide to follow through with your decision to pull our troops out of Syria, any remnants of ISIS in Syria will surely renew and embolden their efforts in the region,” the senators wrote.
The president — who ordered the withdrawal despite concerns raised by his top military and foreign policy advisers about the lingering presence of Islamic State fighters in the region — questioned on Twitter the benefit to the United States of keeping ground troops in Syria.
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight,” Trump tweeted.
Republican lawmakers and military experts alike warned that the United States’ retreat from Syria could cede power and influence over the country to Russia and Iran, who back the leadership of Bashar al-Assad. The United States has backed Kurdish forces who are opposed to Assad.
Russian President Vladmir Putin hailed Trump’s move as “the right decision,” during a Thursday news conference broadcast over Russian state media.
“Donald’s right, and I agree with him,” Putin said,
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking at a joint news conference in Tehran with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said both nations would continue to push for peace in conflict-torn Syria. Rouhani, who backs Assad, said, “The territorial integrity of Syria should be respected,” according to The Associated Press.
Meanwhile U.S. allies in the region expressed concern over Trump’s decision.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement, “There is a danger that the consequences of this decision could damage the fight against the [Islamic State] and endanger the successes that have been achieved.”
The British government in a statement said the allies “must not lose sight of the threat” the Islamic State continues to pose. The French government said in a statement, “The protection of the populations of northeastern Syria and the stability of this zone must be taken into account by the United States to avoid any new humanitarian drama and any return of the terrorists.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a joint news conference in Jerusalem with the leaders of Greece and Cyprus, said Thursday that Israel would “intensify” its military efforts in Syria, and “continue to act very aggressively against Iran’s attempts to entrench in Syria.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which the United States has supported in the fight against Assad, issued a statement that pushed back on Trump’s assertion that the Islamic State had been defeated.
“The war against terrorism has not ended and [the Islamic State group] has not been defeated,” the statement said, according to The Associated Press. “The decision to pull out under these circumstances will lead to a state of instability and create a political and military void in the region and leave its people between the claws of enemy forces.”
The withdrawal comes a week after Brett McGurk, the presidential envoy for the global anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters that the administration was prepared to keep troops on the ground even “after the physical defeat of the caliphate, until we have the pieces in place to ensure that that defeat is enduring.”