The drawdown is slated to finish by Jan. 15, days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. It comes after an abrupt post-election purge of top military officials: Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller made Tuesday’s announcement just eight days after Trump ousted his predecessor, Mark T. Esper.
Trump’s decision hardly came as a shock. From the time of his candidacy in the 2016 presidential election, Trump has railed against America’s military commitments abroad. His rhetoric earned him unlikely allies among the leftists and libertarians who long argued that overreach and inertia had entrenched a global military presence that offered little benefit to Americans and even less to the countries where they fought.
Supporters of this vision welcomed Trump’s last-minute decision to pull troops out. “There is little reason to wait for some more perfect moment in the future,” William Ruger, Trump’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Rajan Menon of the City College of New York wrote in an editorial for The Washington Post. “Moving with all due haste has the added advantage of making it more difficult politically to unwind.”
Yet even if Trump wins this battle, he appears to have lost the larger war to bring U.S. soldiers home. Even with his latest moves, he will have made barely a dent in the estimated 200,000 U.S. troops stationed abroad. Grander plans to move 12,000 troops out of Germany have made little progress. Trump’s war against endless war seems set to end with a whimper, not a bang.
In seeking, and failing, to bring U.S. troops back to America, Trump’s efforts fit with the record of recent presidents. His predecessor, President Barack Obama, often maintained, “there is no military solution,” and once said that war was an “expression of human folly.” During his first term, he oversaw an ambitious plan to withdraw around 150,000 U.S. troops from Iraq.
Ultimately, Obama failed to curtail America’s overseas commitments. After the Islamic State filled a vacuum in the Levant, he sent thousands of U.S. troops back to Iraq, and also began bombing the group in Syria. He dramatically ramped up troop numbers in Afghanistan in the hopes of divisive victory over the Taliban that still proved evasive by the time he left office in 2017.
Trump was a fierce critic of the Obama administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, even many of his allies on the right argue he is making the same mistakes. The Washington Free Beacon called the drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq a “parting gift to libs and terrorists,” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said a “premature American exit would likely be even worse” than Obama’s 2011 Iraq withdrawal.
Liberal critics, meanwhile, argue that the Trump administration leaned into the worst aspects of Obama’s war on terror. Data from the watchdog group Airwars that was published by The Washington Post on Wednesday shows that civilian deaths during U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State rose almost 300 percent in Trump’s first year in office.
And Trump’s aggressive actions on the world stage have often come into tension with his stated ideals. Escalating frictions with Iran have led to dramatic increases in the size of U.S. bases in Gulf states like Qatar. The U.S. strike in January that killed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, brought the countries to the brink of war.
Even as his Pentagon was making moves to pull the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq, Trump had to be dissuaded from a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, the New York Times reported.
But Trump’s failure to bring troops home may say as much about the U.S. military as it does about him. Ingrained military attitudes can often overwhelm civilian decisions. In an exit interview this week, outgoing Syria envoy James Jeffrey said officials had hidden the size of the U.S. military presence in Syria from Trump, who had twice announced complete withdrawals from the country.
“We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey said in an interview with Defense One, adding that there were “a lot more than” the roughly 200 troops Trump initially agreed could remain there in 2019.
There are many who view America’s global military presence as a benefit, not a bug. There are roughly 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea, a legacy of the Korean War — a conflict that effectively ended in 1953. Though Trump has complained that the arrangement is unfair, some military experts argue that leaving South Korea now would ultimately cost more than it would save and deprive the United States of a presence near China.
The Trump administration had promised to upend this orthodoxy. But even simple-seeming alternative arrangements like Poland’s proposed “Fort Trump” have stalled as the government struggled with details. The final move to pull out troops from Iraq and Afghanistan is a last-gasp effort, and only a partial one.