President Donald Trump managed to do something remarkable with his abrupt order last week to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and half from Afghanistan: unite the left and right against a plan to extract the United States from two long, costly and increasingly futile conflicts.
So chaotic was Trump’s decision-making process, so transparent his appeal to his political base, and so lacking in a cogent explanation to allies or the public that the president’s move short-circuited a much-needed national debate about the future of the United States’ wars.
The case for pulling out, military analysts and diplomats said, is stronger in Afghanistan than in Syria, where the United States is abandoning its Kurdish allies, leaving a vacuum that could allow the Islamic State to regroup, and ceding a strategically vital country to Iran and Russia.
Yet even in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have fought a pitched battle for 17 years, those who believe the United States should get out are not speaking up. With the exception of a few vocal isolationists like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Trump’s handling of the issue has been condemned across the ideological spectrum.
Trump issued the order to withdraw over the objections of military and civilian leaders, precipitating the resignations of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett H. McGurk. On a visit to the troops in Iraq on Wednesday, his first as president, Trump insisted that people “are going to come around to my way of thinking.”
And he boasted of denying requests by U.S. military officials to remain in Syria for an additional six months to help defeat the Islamic State, saying U.S. troops had been there long enough.
But the president’s crude defense of the decision — “we’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he told the troops at an air base in Iraq — seemed unlikely to provoke a serious debate over difficult questions like how best to combat terrorist threats in distant lands or the proper limits of the United States’ role as a global guarantor of security.
“I hate to ever feel like I’m in the company of neocons, and I’m no proponent of a forever war in Afghanistan, but pulling troops out in this way is completely irresponsible and nonstrategic,” said Daniel F. Feldman, who served as special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan when President Barack Obama ordered a troop drawdown.
Some analysts said they believed Trump’s orders would not even be carried out — at least not on the 30-day timetable he imposed for Syria. The Pentagon has slow-walked his orders before, and already there is talk of a more gradual withdrawal given the complications that would probably arise from a hasty pullout.
Some former Trump advisers attributed the sudden nature of the announcement to Trump’s frustration with generals who resisted him at every turn when he tried to set a timetable for getting out of Syria and Afghanistan — something, his supporters point out, that he had promised to do during the 2016 campaign.
“The apparatus slow-rolled him until he just said enough and did it himself,” said Stephen Bannon, who clashed with the generals over Afghanistan when he served as the president’s chief strategist in 2017. “Not pretty, but at least done.”
Trump, he said, wanted to end these military campaigns so he could focus on the economic and geopolitical contest with China, which he views as the United States’ biggest foreign threat. “This is not about a return to isolationism,” Bannon said. “It’s the pivot away from the humanitarian expeditionary mentality of the internationalists.”
While Trump’s critics would shrink from that language, military analysts, former officials and diplomats acknowledge there is a case for withdrawing from both conflicts.
Open-ended but limited troop deployments are not likely to alter the battlefield in either Afghanistan, where the Taliban now holds more ground than at any other time since 2001, or in Syria, where the Islamic State’s territorial grip has been broken and President Bashar Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran, has largely stymied the rebellion.
Announcing troop withdrawals will force the United States to rethink long-term military commitments that have little public support and are no longer effective. It could also force the Afghans and Syrians to confront their own deep-rooted problems, without the presence of foreign soldiers who often delay the day of reckoning.
“I, for one, think the decision to withdraw is sound and wise,” said Robert S. Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria.
Keeping 2,000 Special Operations troops in eastern Syria, Ford said, will not prevent Russia and Iran from exerting influence. It will not stabilize or rebuild the parts of the country once held by Islamic State fighters. And it will do little to end Syria’s 6 1/2-year civil war.
The presence of U.S. troops has not made Assad any more amenable to a settlement than he was before the campaign against the Islamic State began in 2014.
“Despite holding most of eastern Syria for two years, including the oil fields, the U.S. and its Syrian allies have extracted exactly zero political concessions from Assad,” said Ford, who now teaches at Yale and is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Assad will wait us out.”
The situation is even starker in Afghanistan. Last month, a year after Trump grudgingly authorized the deployment of nearly 4,000 troops, bringing the total number there to 14,000, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., admitted that the Taliban “are not losing.”
“If someone has a better idea than we have right now, which is to support the Afghans and put pressure on the terrorist groups in the region, I’m certainly open to dialogue on that,” Dunford said at a panel sponsored by The Washington Post earlier this month.
Trump has ordered the number of troops cut in half, to roughly 7,000, which could be the precursor to a full withdrawal. His decision contributed to the resignation of Mattis, who told the president he deserved someone whose “views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”
Trump’s views, however, were hardly a mystery. “It is time to get out of Afghanistan,” he wrote on Twitter on Feb. 27, 2012, when he was already thinking about running for president. “We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests.”
During a meeting in the Situation Room in July 2017, when Mattis and other advisers were pitching their plan to deploy more troops, an angry Trump lashed out. “We’re losing,” he declared, according to a person in the room.
Those frustrations are widely held by NATO allies who have been the United States’ partners in Afghanistan.
“It’s been getting increasingly harder to explain to European publics why we need to stay there,” said Tomas Valasek, a former NATO ambassador from Slovakia who is the director of Carnegie Europe. “Perhaps Trump’s tendency to disrupt things, including by withdrawing from Afghanistan, may not be such a bad idea after all.”
In Afghanistan, the inevitability of a U.S. withdrawal has been in the air since at least 2014, when Obama ordered a major troop reduction. Haroun Mir, an Afghan analyst, said it was understandable that Trump would be fed up, given the chaos on the ground and lack of progress in negotiating a political settlement.
Afghanistan’s leaders, mired in political infighting and corruption, need to see the partial pullout as a sign that they don’t have much time, he said.
But that is not without risk, Mir warned, because if the Taliban returned, it would haunt the Americans “that they were defeated by a ragtag force after 17 years of fighting them.”
However precipitously Trump acted, he was channeling the same reservations that Obama had. Both presidents questioned the open-ended nature of these campaigns, pressed their advisers to define success, and faced the problem of “mission creep.” Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, recently vowed that the United States would not leave Syria as long as Iran, or its proxies, were active there.
“Suggesting they stay until Iranian influence was gone was an unachievable goal and a recipe for potential escalation for a deployment that the Trump people have never been particularly transparent about,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser to Obama.
Expanding the mission to resisting Iran, he pointed out, also “has no distinct congressional authorization.”
Rhodes said he supported the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Syria. But like many former officials, from Democratic and Republican administrations, he harshly criticized how Trump made the decision, without consulting allies or Congress, or even warning his generals.
“The whiplash of the decision, and total lack of clarity around U.S. objectives in Syria, is more problematic than the underlying notion of drawing down forces,” he said. “I’d say the same thing about Afghanistan, where it’s clear that an increased U.S. presence over the last year hasn’t reduced violence.”
Feldman said the timing of Trump’s announcement, a few months before a presidential election in Afghanistan, would be deeply destabilizing. It would undermine Trump’s recently appointed special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, whom he said had shown signs of modest progress in reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
Even the president’s supporters did not defend him. James Jay Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation who worked on Trump’s transition, said he gave the president credit for not just accepting the status quo.
But he added, “It’s not really clear what the plan is in Syria. It’s not clear how we protect our interests after we leave, and it’s not clear how it fits into our regional strategy.”