MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The White House plans to cut the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. A U.S. official has confirmed this to NPR. And this news comes after a shakeup in leadership at the Pentagon. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here with more.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So what kind of cuts are we talking? What do we know?
BOWMAN: Well, I'm told by U.S. official there's been a verbal order from the White House to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from about 4,500 to 2,500 by January. The cut in Iraq would drop the level from about 3,000 troops to 2,500. A formal order is expected this week and could come as early as tomorrow.
Now, this White House move comes as military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley, prefer to keep the level at about 4,500 in Afghanistan going into the spring to put pressure on the Taliban to stop attacks in urban areas, break with al-Qaida and continue peace talks. Those were among the conditions, Mary Louise, agreed to by the U.S. and the Taliban in their peace agreement back in February. The official said it's not a good time for the cuts, and military leaders agree with that since those talks have floundered, and there are increased attacks by the Taliban, a 50% increase over the last quarter.
KELLY: Fifty percent increase - not the direction anyone hoped that would go. How are these cuts tied up - are they tied up with those changes in leadership at the Pentagon that we just mentioned?
BOWMAN: Oh, absolutely. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper was, quote, "terminated" by the (inaudible) tweet last week. And he was told - he's told people it had to do with Afghanistan. Esper also was not favoring any more troop cuts, and he was seen as not carrying out the president's wishes. He was replaced by acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller. Miller quickly signaled in a memo to the DoD workforce that ending wars requires compromise and partnership, and it's time to come home.
KELLY: You know, U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan are not supposed to be entirely mired in Washington politics. They're supposed to reflect conditions on the ground, you know, with better conditions suggesting, OK, maybe we can bring some troops home. Is that part of the calculation here?
BOWMAN: Well, not for the White House, it seems - clearly means the president wants to fulfill a campaign promise to bring an end to what he's been calling forever wars, without concern for the impact on the ground in Afghanistan. Military leaders have insisted - and President Trump has at times himself - that security conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, must dictate troop cuts. And General Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, talked about that recently on NPR. He said, we'll have further discussions on the conditions. The key here is that we're trying to end a war responsibly, deliberately.
KELLY: And what is expected to be the practical effect of all this on conditions on the ground?
BOWMAN: Well, the big thing is, you know, people I talk with say it's wrong - it's a wrong message to send to the Taliban. Again, they have yet to abide by the agreement with the U.S., and these cuts could strengthen their hand in the peace talks. As far as practical effect, you still have, you know, 2,500 U.S. troops. They're working with allies, training Afghans and also going after - commandos are going after al-Qaida and ISIS. So, you know, practical impact - probably not that much.
KELLY: That is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
Thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Mary Louise.
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