The U.S. will begin pulling 12,000 troops, thousands more than previously disclosed, out of Germany within the next few weeks as part of a troop reduction effort that has been widely criticized by lawmakers, including members of President Donald Trump’s own party.
The move, announced Wednesday by Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, comes as the Pentagon looks to deter Russian aggression on Europe’s eastern border and make good on Trump’s threats to punish Germany for a perceived lack of military spending.
The military plans to move 5,600 troops currently in Germany elsewhere within NATO, including to Poland and the Black Sea region. Another 6,400 troops will return to the United States before beginning rotational deployments elsewhere.
Early estimates put the cost of the move in the “single-digit billions,” Pentagon officials said.
In Congress, opposition to the planned reduction of troops has been fierce on both sides of the aisle, and Wednesday’s announcement provoked a volley of harsh statements from lawmakers in both chambers.
“The plan outlined by the Administration today to remove thousands of U.S. troops from Germany is a grave error. It is a slap in the face at a friend and ally when we should instead be drawing closer in our mutual commitment to deter Russian and Chinese aggression,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said in a statement Wednesday.
“It is a gift to Russia coming at a time when we just have learned of its support for the Taliban and reports of bounties on killing American troops. The move may temporarily play well in domestic politics, but its consequences will be lasting and harmful to American interests,” he said.
Earlier this month, Romney attempted to offer an amendment to the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill setting conditions on any cut the Trump administration might make to U.S. troop numbers in Germany below 34,500. But his amendment didn’t get a vote.
In a tweet, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called the announcement “troubling.”
“Our military presence in Germany is the cornerstone of our relations with our NATO and European allies and we should strengthen those relationships, not weaken them,” she said.
Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement that “champagne must be flowing freely this evening at the Kremlin.”
“The Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw forces from Germany is not only an affront to one of our closest allies, but will ultimately weaken U.S. efforts to counter Kremlin aggression in Europe,” he added.
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, called the troop withdrawal “weak.”
“Once more, now with feeling: U.S. troops aren’t stationed around the world as traffic cops or welfare caseworkers — they’re restraining the expansionary aims of the world’s worst regimes, chiefly China and Russia. The President’s lack of strategic understanding of this issue increases our response time and hinders the important deterrent work our servicemen and women are doing,” he said in a statement.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said the Trump administration seemed to be unraveling under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The administration’s moves outlined today lack a strategic rationale, weaken our allies’ confidence in the reliability of U.S. defense commitments, and serve to embolden Putin’s efforts to divide the Alliance,” he said in a statement.
Praise for the administration’s plan was hard to find on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. But some lawmakers were more restrained in their reactions.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that parts of the troop reduction plan have merit but other aspects, like the cap on the number of troops stationed in certain countries, are “troubling.”
The Texas Republican’s response to the Pentagon’s announcement was more muted than a June 9 letter he authored with 21 other Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee warning that the removal of troops from Germany would weaken the NATO alliance.
“In Europe, the threats posed by Russia have not lessened, and we believe that signs of a weakened U.S. commitment to NATO will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism,” they wrote, adding concerns about training exercises in the region.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that Germany, one of America’s closest allies, is not paying its fair share of “NATO fees” and that the country has taken advantage of the United States on trade. In 2014, NATO set a goal for each of its 30 members to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense.
“We’re still retaining a little more than 24,000 troops in Germany. More than any other place in Europe. But we’re now following the boundary east, to where our newest allies are,” Esper said. “And let’s be clear, Germany is the wealthiest country in Europe, it should meet the 2 percent standard.”
The Pentagon’s message that the troop reduction is a strategic move was quickly overshadowed, however.
Less than an hour after the briefing, Trump told reporters at the White House that the reduction of troops is because of the fact that “Germany’s delinquent. They haven’t paid their fees, they haven’t paid their NATO fees. The United States has been taken advantage of.”
As part of the restructuring, U.S. European Command, currently headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, will be moved to Mons, Belgium. NATO’s Allied Command Operations center is headquartered in Mons.