This should have been a victory lap for a president hailed by the military for letting them loose to attack ISIS, unconstrained by the reluctance and micromanagement of the Obama administration. But President Donald Trump has just announced the U.S. would be leaving the job to Turkey, deserting Kurdish and Western coalition allies, and abandoning the field of battle to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran.
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” President Donald Trump told a group of about 100 troops, most of them special operators, in an unannounced holiday visit to al-Asad Airbase, in northern Iraq. He added that other countries can no longer expect the U.S. to do their fighting, unless they are willing to pay for it. “The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” he said.
He defended his decision to turn over the ISIS fight to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“In Syria, Erdogan said he wants to knock out ISIS, whatever’s left, the remnants of ISIS,” Trump told reporters on the trip. “And Saudi Arabia just came out and said they are going to pay for some economic development, which is great; that means we don’t have to pay.”
But what of the French and British allies the U.S. has left behind in Syria to keep up the fight? Does that mean they are the suckers left holding the bag? Or the Kurdish militia groups that did most of the fighting, and dying, to drive out the so-called Islamic State, now left to the tender mercies of sworn enemy Turkey?
The president was unrepentant, explaining that he gave “the generals” multiple six-month “extensions” to get out of Syria. “They said again, recently, can we have more time? I said, ‘Nope.’ You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time. We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly,” he said. “Others will do it too. Because we are in their region. They should be sharing the burden of costs and they’re not.”
But the decision hasn’t sat well with many in the special-operations community Trump was addressing, as they’ve known many of these Kurdish fighters for years, and risked life and limb on joint missions together well before the ISIS fight.
Trump and his wife Melania deserve a salute for traveling into a conflict zone to visit the troops. It’s a gut-wrenching proposition even when you’re traveling into a place you know is well defended. It must have been triply nerve-wracking for people alien to the combat universe. Sure, it took him longer than the last two presidents to get around to making the trip, but that will matter little now that it’s done.
But Trump has left allies gut-punched and worried. He’s shown that he’s happy to leave management of the Middle East to strongmen with records of human rights abuses back home, and also is unfussed by the blowback of allies surprised to get this news by tweet.
Iraqi officials tell The Daily Beast the ISIS fight is far from over inside their country, and while Trump assured on this trip that U.S. troops wouldn’t be withdrawing from Iraq, Baghdad is less than reassured after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and anti-ISIS State Department envoy Brett McGurk both resigned. Tellingly, a scheduled in-person meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was swapped for a phone call, according to reporters traveling with the president. Just as well, considering another of the Trump’s remarks to reporters on the trip.
“We don’t want to be taken advantage of any more by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them,” Trump said. “They don’t pay for it, and they’re going to have to.” Those kind of comments strengthen the hand of officials in Baghdad who’d like to rely more on Tehran than Washington, a senior Iraqi official said. Within hours of Trump’s visit, Iraqi media reported local political parties were condemning his visit and calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops.
Worse for some of those troops Trump spoke to, is that he’s also signaled he wants to draw down quickly in Afghanistan—a message that undoes the work of Mattis and others to reassure the Afghan government, and warn the Taliban, that the U.S. would stay there as long as it takes.
Trump has repeated the error of President Barack Obama, who infamously simultaneously announced a troop surge and a drawdown date in the very same West Point speech, essentially signaling to the Taliban and America’s other regional enemies that they need merely stage a tactical retreat and wait a few years.
A decade later, the Taliban have roared back with a vengeance, with partial or complete control over 250 out of 400 Afghan districts, according to Foreign Affairs.
U.S. commanders had pursued a strategy aimed at weakening the Taliban enough to put them on the backfoot, intended to give the Afghan government and American negotiators the upper hand in peace talks. Yet U.S. presidents never seem to want to put their foot on the gas long enough to keep it that way, frustrated by a local government that continues to battle internal corruption, and an Afghan army that battles bravely but not capably enough to keep the Taliban at bay.
Trump indicated that his patience is similarly frayed.
“Each nation of the world must decide for itself what kind of future it wants to build for its people and what kind of sacrifices they’re willing to make for their children,” he told the troops. “America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on earth.”
Ending forever wars responsibly is a code the United States hasn’t yet cracked, and Trump deserves credit for aiming to try. Nearly 5,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, and more than 3,500 killed in Afghanistan, according to iCasualties.org. But the way Trump’s doing it means the United States will be less likely to be able to build and hold together coalitions when future threats appear.
He’s cleared out his Cabinet of three former generals—Mattis, former National Security Adviser and retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and retired Gen. John Kelly—who were all sick of forever wars, and were working to shrink the current ones. But they were also scarred by having to send troops back into battle after previous precipitous drawdowns and withdrawals.
It seems now Trump is following his original instincts of bringing as many U.S. troops back home as possible, as fast as possible—a desire that now expressed makes him more vulnerable to the manipulations of adversaries like North Korea and frenemies like Russia who could do with fewer U.S. troops near their real estate, be it in South Korea, or NATO deployments in Europe.
Maybe Trump thinks he won’t be in office when the bill comes due for these hasty decisions.
But many of the young troops he greeted on this day after Christmas in Iraq will still be in uniform. They’ll remember his words if they have to go back.