US cuts troops in Iraq on Trump pledge to stop 'endless wars'

©Agence France-Presse

US forces in Iraq: the top general in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, announced that US troop levels inside the country will be slashed to 3,000 in September 2020

Washington (AFP) - The US announced a sharp cut Wednesday to troop numbers in Iraq, as President Donald Trump seeks to honor his pledge to halt the country's "endless wars" overseas with just two months to go until the election.

The move, reducing the Pentagon's footprint in Iraq from 5,200 military personnel to just 3,000, and an expected parallel announcement on Afghanistan, comes as Trump strives to cast himself as a peacemaker as he fights an uphill battle to stay in power.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany rejected suggestions that the announced drawdown was an election move, saying that "now is the time" because Iraq is stable and its security forces are well-prepared.

"End to endless wars. We hear that often. Not too often do we see that actually done," she said.

"It's a fact: President Trump has broken the 39-year-old streak of American presidents either starting a war or bringing the United States into an international armed conflict." 

General Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the US military's Central Command, said in Baghdad that the drawdown was "due to our confidence in the Iraqi security forces' increased ability to operate independently."

That would take the US presence there to its lowest level since Trump's predecessor Barack Obama cut troops to a token force in 2012 in a previous attempt to end the then nine-year-old war.

But Obama was forced to reverse course by the rise of the Islamic State group (IS), raising the number of troops inside Iraq back over 5,000 as part of an international coalition to combat the jihadists.

'Bringing them back home'

Cuts were already underway, with some troops just moved to Gulf-area bases due to the Covid-19 threat and rocket attacks by Iran-linked Iraqi armed groups on the Iraq operations.

But, fighting for re-election against Democrat Joe Biden, Trump has sought to honor his repeated pledge during the 2016 campaign to end US wars abroad and bring back servicemen.

"We kept America out of new wars and we're bringing our troops back home, we're bringing them back home from all these faraway places," Trump said in a campaign speech in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Tuesday.

"We've spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and what do we get out of it?" he said, adding: "Biden voted for the Iraq war."

In Baghdad some Iraqis were skeptical, recalling Obama's reversal in 2014.

But others were adamant that the US had to pull out entirely.

"We don't want to totally cut ties with America," said Ali Suleiman, an administrative worker in the Hashed al-Shaabi, the state-sponsored network of fighters dominated by pro-Iran forces.

"But if it doesn't totally leave, we will fight it," Suleiman said.

Cuts in Afghanistan

Trump has also pushed hard to pull back US forces from Afghanistan, where they rose to more than 12,000 under his watch to pressure the Taliban and IS.

The number fell to about 8,600 in July following a February accord between Washington and the Taliban, and is expected to be around 4,500 in October.

McKenzie has said they could all be gone by May 2021 if the Taliban and the Afghan government reach a peace agreement. 

But Trump's pressure on the Pentagon to more quickly disengage in the Middle East and Afghanistan has strained relations with defense chiefs, concerned about the Taliban, the Islamic State remnants and the Iranians seeking to gain ground with the US departure.

Focus on voters

Trump believes pushing ahead could boost his standing among voters fed up with conflicts that began almost two decades ago, after the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks.

But support for Trump has also been eroded by disdainful remarks he has made toward the military.

Last week the Atlantic magazine reported that in 2018 Trump referred to US Marines buried in a World War I cemetery in France as "losers" and "suckers" for getting killed in action.

The White House has denied the comments, but the reporter cited multiple first-hand sources, and has been backed up by other publications.

Then on Sunday Trump suggested that the Pentagon leadership supports wars to keep defense contractors in business.

"I'm not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are," Trump said at the White House. 

"The top people in the Pentagon probably aren't, because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy."