The US military did not stop the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the Defense Department told Reuters on Monday, despite a law banning further troop reductions without submitting a risk assessment to Congress.
“Currently, no new orders have been received that would impact on troop reductions, which are expected to reach 2,500 by January 15, 2021,” the statement said.
The Pentagon’s move is likely to spark backlash from Republican and Democratic lawmakers opposing further troop reductions and renew fears over the outgoing administration.
“It would be against the law if they continue to downsize the military,” a Congressional official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The White House declined to comment.
A halt to the withdrawal could jeopardize the US-backed peace process in Afghanistan, as the February 2019 deal with the Taliban calls for a complete US withdrawal by May 2021 in exchange for implementing security guarantees.
In November, the Pentagon said it would cut the number of US troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January. Congress passed the Defense Budget Act this month, which prohibits the use of FY2021 and FY2021 funds to pay for US troop reductions below 4,000 until Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller presents to Congress a “comprehensive multi-agency risk assessment and consequences ”.
It is unclear how many troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan after the law was passed.
One Defense Department official, who asked not to be identified, said that the number of US troops in Afghanistan was already approaching 3,000.
The law also requires a risk assessment before the US military can be reduced to less than 2,000.
Earlier, there was a call not to reduce forces amid a surge in violence in Afghanistan and because of the Taliban’s inability to end cooperation with al-Qaeda, as required by the February 2020 agreement.
Another US official said that the drop in the number of troops took place when the law came into force, and that it is not something that can be changed “overnight.”
The official did not rule out that the law would slow down the withdrawal of troops until Trump leaves office on January 20, when Democrat Joe Biden, winner of the November 3 presidential election, replaces him.