Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Thursday that while he supports reducing the number of troops in the Middle East, that if elected president, he cannot promise full withdrawal of troops in the near future because of complicated conditions in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“These ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State],” Biden said in an interview with Stars and Stripes.
Biden told the military newspaper he would keep a small military presence in the region if elected president to orchestrate special operations against the Islamic State and other terror organizations to keep extremists at bay.
By contrast, President Barack Obama removed all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 after the end of major fighting, which critics have said contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.
“I think we need special ops capacity to coordinate with our allies,” Biden said, adding there should be a maximum of “1,500 to 2,000” on the ground, a smaller force that what he would likely inherit from Trump.
The former vice president said the military should not get involved in the political dynamics of the countries where they operate but that U.S. forces must be able to work with allies to train and lead to “take out terrorist groups who are going to continue to emerge.”
Biden’s comments came one day after General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, announced plans to withdraw over 2,000 troops from Iraq by the end of the month, bringing the troop level down to 3,000. In Afghanistan, the force will be cut from 8,600 to 4,500 by November.
The former vice president also said that he does not anticipate any major cuts to the U.S. defense budget, and that defense spending could even increase under his leadership.
“I don’t think [budget cuts] are inevitable, but we need priorities in the budget,” Biden said.
“We have to focus more on unmanned capacity, cyber and IT, in a very modern world that is changing rapidly,” he said. “I’ve met with a number of my advisors and some have suggested in certain areas the budget is going to have to be increased.”
He promised to upgrade equipment used by the National Guard, which often trains and deploys with outdated equipment, according to Stars and Stripes, and said that transgender people should be able to openly serve in the military.
As the military moves its attention to potential threats from “near-peer” powers such as China and Russia, he said the largest issue it faces is the country’s weakened relationship with NATO.
“They’re worried as hell about our failure to confront Russia diplomatically or other ways, and worried about ‘America First’ meaning ‘America Alone,’” he said.
“First thing I’m going to have to do, and I’m not joking: if elected I’m going to have to get on the phone with the heads of state and say America’s back, you can count on us.”