In 1948, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, R-Mich., proposed a resolution that subsequently bore his name. The “Vandenberg Resolution” called for the United States to pursue collective security arrangements and set the stage for American entry into NATO and full participation in the United Nations.
“We must stop politics at the water’s edge,” he memorably declared. President Donald Trump would seem to disagree, and his decision to shirk such precedents may in turn put the U.S. and its allies at greater risk.
President Donald Trump would seem to disagree, and his decision to shirk such precedents may in turn put the U.S. and its allies at greater risk.
On Wednesday afternoon, recently installed acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller announced that Trump had ordered the withdrawal of thousands of troops from Afghanistan, as well as a reduction in Iraq. Trump further directed that this occur by Jan. 15 — only five days prior to the planned inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
In his remarks, Miller paid tribute to Trump’s “bold leadership” and further noted that this was the president’s “plan to bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a successful and responsible conclusion, and to bring our brave service members home.”
Assuming all goes as now planned, by the inauguration about 2,500 troops will be left in Afghanistan and about the same number will be in Iraq. Clearly, the American people are weary of the war in Afghanistan after over 19 years, and rightfully so. It is now the longest war in American history.
But how you end a war is critically important. In 1971, sociologist and defense expert Fred Iklé wrote his seminal book, “Every War Must End,” during the closing days of the Vietnam War. Iklé argued that American forces must not be committed to combat without a clear military strategy, whether for defeating the enemy of for expelling the aggressor’s forces and restoring the peace.
Clearly, neither of these goals have been achieved in Afghanistan. The possibility of a political settlement and a more orderly withdrawal consistent with the February agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban is now remote.
Two questions are obvious. What are the national security implications for the U.S. and its allies as a result of Trump’s decision? And why would the president take these actions in the waning days of his administration?
Miller neither took questions nor provided any rationale for why this would lead to a successful or responsible conclusion in either country. Indeed, the Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal noted that the 2,500 number appeared to have been “pulled out of a Pentagon helmet as an arbitrary alternative to the disastrous total pullout” that Trump has publicly promoted.
In October, Trump tweeted about withdrawing all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Christmas. This left American defense officials scrambling as they attempted to explain what the president “actually” meant. The Taliban lauded Trump’s tweet as “a very positive step.”
Earlier this year, the military agreed to reduce American troops in Afghanistan to about 4,500 Americans by November. Further withdrawals were to be dependent upon whether the Taliban fulfilled the commitments of their February deal with U.S. The Taliban agreed to reduce attacks, renounce any connections to al Qaeda, and begin negotiations with the government in Kabul on a long-term political settlement. In return, the U.S. and its NATO partners would withdraw their forces from Afghanistan by May 2021.
Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper provided the White House with a classified memo earlier this month recommending against further troop reductions from Afghanistan. In this document, all the top American military commanders agreed that further reductions should be “conditions based” and consistent with the U.S.-Taliban accord.
But in fact, none of these conditions have been achieved. Violence in Afghanistan is actually increasing. Since the agreement was signed, the Taliban have shown an unwillingness to push back on al Qaeda, and there is clear evidence that they consulted with al Qaeda during the negotiations, according to a report in May from the U.N. Security Council.
But in fact, none of these conditions have been achieved. Violence in Afghanistan is actually increasing.
Esper’s November memo expressed serious concerns that additional withdrawals with these conditions unmet might put U.S. goals in Afghanistan and American national security at risk. It argued such actions risked alienating our allies; potentially encouraged an upsurge in so-called “green-on-blue” attacks by Afghan soldiers against Americans; undermined U.S. credibility globally; seriously eroded the ability of the U.S. to support operations by Afghan security forces; and undermined efforts to encourage the Taliban to comply with the February agreement. The memo was likely one of the main reasons why Trump decided to fire Esper.
It also seems clear that neither our NATO allies nor the Afghan government were consulted on this week’s decision, though Miller did say that they had been informed prior to his press conference. The war in Afghanistan is a NATO mission, and we can now expect a commensurate reduction in these forces.
Our NATO partners currently provide thousands of their own troops in Afghanistan. This is larger than the U.S. contingent, but they are reliant on American transport and protection. On Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the decision could lead to Afghanistan becoming a terrorist haven again.
Even senior Republican members of the House and the Senate criticized this decision. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., compared the president’s decision to “the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975,” warning it would undermine Trump’s record in Middle East affairs. This criticism was echoed by Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, as well as Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
So why is Trump making such a dangerous and unpopular move in the waning days of his administration? There would appear to be four reasons. First, Trump has long argued that he wanted to end America’s wars in the Middle East, and talked about this during his 2020 State of the Union address. It is clearly a bucket list item, and he likely believes is appealing to his base. Second, fulfilling this promise could be part of his plans for a possible run for the presidency in 2024. Third, it serves to distract attention from his failing attempts to overturn the election. Finally, it clearly blindsides the incoming Biden administration and limits options for the new administration.
According to CNN, a senior Trump official is reported to have said that the goal is to set as many fires as possible for the Biden administration to have to put out.
Outgoing presidents have traditionally avoided major foreign policy decisions. They knew their successor would ultimately deal with the consequences. Consequently, it is also startling to consider that the decision to withdraw forces from Iraq and Afghanistan occurred at roughly the same time that the president was asking his senior military advisers for options on an attack against an Iranian nuclear facility in the coming weeks. How the United States could conduct a significant withdrawal of forces from the region while likely starting a war with Iran is difficult to fathom.
All of this is now occurring during Trump’s ongoing efforts to prevent an orderly transition to a Biden administration. The primary obligation of any president is to protect the nation. The final responsibility of any president, prior to leaving office, is to set conditions for the next president to be successful in that same obligation.
Consequently, there are only two possible final conclusions. Either this decision displays a total lack of strategic coherency, or it is a clear example of the triumph of personal gain over the nation’s security.