U.S. forces in Afghanistan have begun a planned drawdown of troops from 4,500 to 2,500 by Jan. 15 under orders from President Donald Trump, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday.
But final decisions on the continuing presence there, Army Gen. Mark Milley added, were up to the incoming Biden administration.
Army Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, have also submitted plans to Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller for closing bases and repositioning the troops who will remain, Milley said.
"We're in the process of executing [the drawdown] right now. That's happening as we speak," Milley said in a virtual discussion with the Brookings Institution.
He acknowledged that conditions on the ground were at a stalemate between the Taliban and the forces of the Kabul government, and also said that the U.S. had achieved only a "modicum of success" after nearly 20 years of working to establish a stable democracy in Afghanistan. Even as Milley spoke, however, there were signs that stalemate was coming to an end: reports emerged Wednesday that the two sides had agreed on rules for negotiation, marking the end of a months-long impasse.
Another goal of the U.S. has been "to ensure that Afghanistan never again became a platform for a terroristic strike against the United States," Milley said. "To a large measure, at least to date, we have been successful in preventing that from happening again."
He did not give specifics on how many troops have already left Afghanistan or whether they would be home for Christmas.
Milley said planning for the reduction of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2.500 by Jan. 15 is also now underway.
Remaining troops in Iraq, he said, would likely be there indefinitely under agreements with the Baghdad government to continue the train, advise and assist mission to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State.
In addition, Milley appeared to confirm recent reports that Trump wanted the estimated 800 U.S. troops in Somalia to be withdrawn before he leaves office.
The U.S. troop presence in Somalia was the subject "of an ongoing debate right this minute," Milley said. "We're taking a hard look at repositioning the force," he said, to allow for continuing counter-terror operations against al-Shabaab insurgents.
Milley had previously voiced concerns that spilled over into an unusual public spat with White House National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien in October over the pace of the drawdown.
However, he said the acting defense secretary had given initial approval to the department's plans to close a number of bases to align with the reduced U.S. military presence.
He declined to discuss "what bases are coming down" but said the remaining U.S. troops would likely work out of a small number of larger bases and several satellite bases.
The hour-long session at Brookings did not touch on the Nov. 27 killing of a top Iranian nuclear scientist and the potential threat to U.S. forces in the region.
Instead, Milley suggested that the drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and possibly in Somalia, were part of the hard look the military was taking at reducing overseas deployments in line with predicted tighter defense budgets.
"There's a strong argument to be made that we have forces in places they shouldn't be" in terms of contributions to U.S. national security interests, Milley said, without naming places.
He said that the priorities for federal spending would -- and should -- be focused on recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, jump-starting the economy and shoring up education.
"We do cost an enormous amount of money for the American taxpayer," Milley said of defense budgets now in the range of about $740 billion. If the budget increased in real teams at the rate of 3-5% in the coming years, as the military would prefer, it would soon be at $1 trillion, he said.
"We've got to do a quick reality check," Milley said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.