US troop withdrawal from Germany ‘put on freeze’

US General Tod Wolters (Supreme Allied Commander Europe, SACEUR) attends the 181st Military Committee in Chiefs of Defence Session at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 22 May 2019. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

All plans related to the Trump administration’s troop withdrawal from Germany have been put on on hold until new Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin will review the move, US European Command chief General Tod Wolters said Wednesday (3 February).

“The previous planning that was ongoing for the previous initiative has been put on freeze, so that our secretary of defense and this administration could conduct a thorough review of everything that has transpired up to the point to where Sec. Austin took charge,” Wolters told reporters in a phone briefing.

Lloyd James Austin III is a retired United States Army four-star general who has been the United States secretary of defense since 22 January. He is the first African American to serve as US Defense Secretary.

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The announcement follows hints by the new Biden administration that the decision to pull up to 12,000 troops out of Germany and shifting some of the forces to Italy and Belgium would be scrutinised by the new Pentagon defence chiefs.

Biden had been critical of Trump’s treatment of European allies and pledged a fresh start for transatlantic relations under his presidency.

Last summer, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to cut the number of US troops in Germany to 25,000, faulting Berlin for failing to meet the military alliance’s 2% GDP defence spending target and accusing it of taking advantage of America on trade.

Most troops are currently stationed at the Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany, the largest American military base outside the US.

Pentagon to shift US troops from Germany to Belgium, Italy

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper outlined plans on Wednesday (29 July) to take thousands of US troops out of Germany by shifting some of the forces to Italy and Belgium, ending weeks of uncertainty over US troop withdrawal strategy in Europe.

According to the withdrawal plan, a total of 11,900 personnel will be withdrawn from Germany, reducing the contingent to about 24,000 troops in the country “in a manner that will strengthen NATO, enhance the deterrence of Russia, and meet the other principles I set forth,” then US Defense Secretary Mark Esper Esper had announced.

The Pentagon had already been carrying out a review of US forces globally before Trump’s long-running dispute with Germany surfaced.

The decision, however, had caught Europeans and US military officials off guard and caused a crisis in transatlantic trust.

“At this very moment, every single one of those options, they are all on hold. They will all be reexamined from cradle to grave,” Wolters told reporters.

According to him, all moves already put into motion, which includes relocating the headquarters of US European Command (EUCOM) and US Africa Command (AFRICOM) from Stuttgart to Mons, Belgium, are “on freeze”.

The US European Command chief also hinted during the briefing that the planning carried out so far under the Trump administration had been so intransparent that already made moves were difficult to track and progress was impossible to measures.

“There were so many pieces and parts to the plan, we could probably sit here for weeks and guess on the depth and how far along we were,” he told reporters.

“In all cases, there were branches and sequels with multiple options,” he added.

Asked for him big picture look on the previous Trump plans, Wolters said that “at the time, based on the guidance given, the options that were addressed in the public domain were the ones that we thought most clearly addressed the advantages”.

When the proposed drawdown was first announced, Esper and Wolters said taking troops out of Germany and moving them elsewhere would enhance security in Europe, but de facto US military officials last year had struggled to justify the move.

Wolters did not say when Austin was expected to wrap up his review. But when it is completed, he said, “we will go back to the drawing board.”

“Secretary Austin expressed his gratitude to Germany for continuing to serve as a great host for US forces,” the Pentagon had said in a statement following Austin’s call with German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer last week.

The growing cooperation “really does suggest an emergence of a partnership of convenience”, he told reporters.

He said the partnership was intended to advance mutual interests, “and that advancement could be to the detriment of Europe and corresponding and surrounding nations”.

“We are ever so vigilant with respect to that growing cooperation,” Wolters said.

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