U.S. Plans to Withdraw About 12,000 Troops From Germany
(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. announced plans to withdraw about 12,000 troops from Germany, a shift that Defense Secretary Mark Esper said would bolster NATO and deter Russia but President Donald Trump signaled was largely about punishing Germany as a defense deadbeat.
Esper said Wednesday that about 5,600 troops would be redeployed to other nations in Europe, including Italy and Belgium, while 6,400 would return to the U.S. Even as Esper was pitching the strategic benefits of the shift at the Pentagon, Trump was at the White House undercutting the military’s case.
“They’ve taken advantage of us for many years,” Trump, who has frequently complained about German defense spending, told reporters. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore.”
Trump has long said Germany and other partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should quickly ramp up efforts to meet the alliance’s goal that all members spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense. Now, as Trump faces a tough re-election battle, the drawdown lets him begin fulfilling a 2016 campaign promise to bring American troops home, at the risk of further rupturing a NATO alliance already frayed by the president’s “America First” policies.
A U.S. official said the process, which would leave about 24,000 forces in Germany, would probably take years.
Part of the shift will involve moving forces to Italy, Belgium and other nations, while some troops returning to the U.S. will still do rotations in Europe, Esper said.
“Various United States headquarters will be consolidated in locations in Europe, outside of Germany, including in some cases co-locating at the same locations as their NATO counterparts in Belgium and Italy,” Esper said. Other forces will do “continuous rotations” in the Black Sea region.
General Tod Wolters, commander of U.S. forces in Europe and NATO’s supreme allied commander, said the headquarters for U.S. Africa Command in Stuttgart, Germany, was among the operations likely to move elsewhere. About 1,500 personnel are based there.
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic criticized the move.
“We very much regret the U.S. government’s decision,” said Markus Soeder, the premier of Bavaria and one of the leading contenders to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor. “Unfortunately, this affects the German-American relationship. The military benefit isn’t evident. In the long-run, it even weakens NATO and the United States itself.”
Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who has often clashed with Trump, said on Twitter that the move is a “grave error” and “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.”
Pressed about Trump’s focus on political digs at Germany over the strategic benefits of the plan, Esper acknowledged the move reflects the president’s demands that some troops return to the U.S. But he also said he agrees that Germany could spend more than the 2% of GDP target for defense spending established by NATO.
“Let’s be clear, I think Germany is the wealthiest country in Europe,” Esper said. “Germany can and should pay more to its defense.”
European allies, including Merkel, were stunned earlier this year by Trump’s decision to proceed with a troop withdrawal without prior consultations. On Wednesday, Air Force General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured reporters that consultations will take place as the withdrawal goes forward.
“The US has consulted closely with all NATO allies ahead of today’s announcement,” the alliance said in a statement after Esper spoke. “Peace and security in Europe is important for the security and prosperity of North America, and as we face a more unpredictable world, we are stronger and safer when we stand together.”
Esper called the occasion “one of those inflection points in NATO’s history.” He said, “I’m confident the alliance will be all the better and stronger for it.”
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