Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, (@DavidAndelman) a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, and executive director of The Red Lines Project, is the author of the forthcoming “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Could Still Happen.” He formerly was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Asia and Europe. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
While much of the world has been preoccupied with the President’s refusal to acknowledge his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden, Donald Trump has been moving building blocks in a way that, if successful, could have a significant impact on America’s security abroad and safety at home.
On Monday, the Pentagon issued a “warning notice” to theater commanders to begin a further, substantial drawdown of US forces from both Afghanistan and Iraq by January 15, five days before Trump will leave office.
This follows Trump’s preparatory move, a takedown of the upper reaches of the Pentagon at a critical and most sensitive moment in national security – the interregnum between two administrations. Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper last Monday and named Christopher Miller, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, acting secretary in his place.
Miller’s new chief of staff will be Kash Patel, who tried to discredit investigations into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia while he was an aide to former House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes. Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who has made racist and xenophobic comments and called for the use of deadly force at the US-Mexico border, will serve as Miller’s senior adviser. The shake-up also involved replacing James Anderson, who resigned from the Pentagon’s top policy role on Tuesday, with retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, who, according to CNN’s KFile, has made a number of Islamophobic tweets, some of which he later deleted, and who once labeled President Obama a “terrorist leader.”
What do these new appointees all have in common? Each of them is likely willing and prepared to implement Trump’s military goal of withdrawing US troops around the world. While Trump, who spent years slamming US involvement in “endless wars,” has announced drawdowns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, thousands of US troops are still deployed in the region.
Trump wanted all American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, and sources told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the White House may have directed the Defense Department purge because Esper and his team were pushing back on a premature withdrawal there.
Still, if the warning notices are carried through, some 2,500 troops would still be left in each theater – though Trump’s goal had been zero troops by the time he left office. It was unclear whether leaving such a small number of American troops in bitterly contested areas could endanger the safety of those still deployed.
Miller issued a memo to the Defense Department just after midnight Saturday that read, “Ending wars requires compromise and partnership. We met the challenge; we gave it our all. Now, it’s time to come home.” Macgregor, on the other hand, made his views apparent when he told Tucker Carlson in 2019 that the US should withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Syria immediately.
Even before the latest Pentagon reshuffle, the US timeline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was wildly inconsistent.
US military leaders have stressed that a withdrawal there would be contingent on certain conditions, including the Taliban breaking ties with al Qaeda and making progress in peace talks with the Afghan government. Both of these conditions have not yet been met, and prematurely withdrawing US troops would not only destroy the credibility of our country, but also remove any incentive to achieve these goals.
The situation in Afghanistan is fraught. In a quarterly report to Congress on October 30, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported that the “average daily enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan were 50% higher this quarter (July-September) than last quarter” and “above seasonal norms.” The Department of Defense believes the Taliban “is calibrating its use of violence to harass and undermine” the Afghan government while keeping these attacks “at a level it perceives is within the bounds of the [US – Taliban] agreement, probably to encourage a US troop withdrawal and set favorable conditions for a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.” A US troop withdrawal could pave the way for the Taliban to return promptly to power.
This would only create a bigger headache for the Biden administration. The last time the United States ousted the Taliban from power, after they had been found to be harboring al Qaeda leaders as they were planning the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it took an invasion force of about 2,500. But over time, that force peaked at 100,000 US troops in 2011.
Trump has also expressed a desire to move American forces out of Syria and Iraq, although concrete plans have often conflicted with the President’s own messaging. After Trump announced the US would withdraw from Syria in October 2019, a new wave of troops poured in, leaving the total number in Syria largely unchanged. In August, Trump announced all US troops would leave Iraq “shortly,” and about three weeks later, a top military commander said the US would be cutting the number of troops there in half, to about 3,000. Now, with the new brass in charge at the Pentagon, Trump could have a clearer path to achieving his goals.
In Iraq and Syria, “an abrupt US pullout removes one of the more major forms of direct and indirect pressure on the countless militia groups controlled by Iran,” Phillip Smyth, a Soref Fellow at The Washington Institute, and one of America’s leading experts on Mideast militias, told me in an e-mail exchange. “Ideologically and in terms of long-term goals, Tehran wants US forces out, and they want to use any pullout as an example of the US as a paper tiger.”
An American withdrawal, Smyth points out, “would enable Iran to use its militias to fill the vacuum left by departing U.S. forces. Smyth has tracked the emergence of around 20 new front groups, and all have demanded US pullout of Iraq.
History shows us that transitions in US governments can be a vulnerable time.
The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, took place on December 21, 1988, as George H. W. Bush was preparing to take over from President Ronald Reagan. And in his final weeks in office in December 1992, Bush, preparing to turn over the presidency to Bill Clinton, ordered 25,000 American troops into Somalia – which led less than a year later to the deaths of 18 American soldiers in the Black Hawk Down incident.
Now, the US focus on Trump’s refusal to concede the election and Biden being sidelined from national security briefings could encourage anti-US forces inclined to profit from any perception of American weakness or hesitation.
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The costs of pulling US troops out of volatile regions prematurely could drag the US back into war all over again. This would be a horrific burden on the Biden administration, especially given the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout.
This is not the time for the US to let its guard down and abandon conflicts that will only pose a new threat to our national security – even if it is being done largely to fulfill Trump’s campaign promises rather than because he wants to leave his successor with a toxic legacy to clean up.