The United States is preparing to withdraw nearly 12,000 troops from Germany in what it has described as a “strategic” repositioning of its forces in Europe.
About 6,400 troops will be sent home, the rest being transferred to other NATO countries such as Italy and Belgium.
President Donald Trump said the move was a response to Germany failing to meet NATO defense spending targets.
But he has drawn widespread opposition in Congress from those who think he will embolden Russia.
Senior German officials have also expressed concern.
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“We don’t want to be suckers anymore,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday shortly after the move was announced. “We are reducing the force because they don’t pay their bills; it’s very simple. ”
Mr Trump has long complained that European NATO members should spend more on their own defense. He said NATO members should no longer rely so much on the United States to bear the costs of maintaining the alliance.
The argument between the allies centers on the goal agreed by all members of the alliance that defense spending should reach 2% of GDP (gross domestic product, total value of goods produced and services provided in a country ) by 2024. Germany, as well as many other countries, has not yet reached this target.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper took a different tone in announcing the decision, suggesting it was part of a larger plan to reposition US forces in the region.
He said it was “a major and positive strategic shift” that “would undoubtedly achieve the basic principles of strengthening US and NATO deterrence against Russia.”
This decision will cost the US government several billion dollars and reduce the country’s military presence in Germany by more than 25%.
A squadron of fighter jets would be transferred to Italy while some troops could be transferred to Poland, Esper said.
The move has been criticized by German officials, with the chairman of the country’s foreign affairs committee suggesting it “would weaken the NATO alliance.”
And the German head of state of Bavaria, Markus Soeder, said he regretted the decision. “It weighs down German-American relations,” he told reporters.
There have also been bipartisan criticisms in Washington. “It is a self-inflicted injury… against American interests,” said Democratic Senator Jack Reed.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney described the decision to withdraw troops from Germany as a “serious mistake” and a “slap in the face of a friend and ally.”
The plan was first announced by Mr. Trump last month, when he accused Berlin of being “late” in its payments to NATO. He also accused Germany of treating the United States “very badly when it comes to trade.”
He also claimed that Germany benefits from having troops there because the soldiers spend their money in the country.
The American military presence in Germany is a legacy of the Allied occupation of the country after World War II. Germany currently hosts by far the largest number of American forces in Europe, followed by Italy, the United Kingdom and Spain.
Some US personnel based in Europe support non-NATO operations, and US military numbers fluctuate as forces are transferred inside and outside Europe.