Mattis Quits Over Differences With Trump

The U.S. defense secretary’s resignation comes after the president’s decision to pull troops from Syria.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks to members of the press before a press briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks to members of the press before a press briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

By signaling U.S. troop withdrawals in Syria and Afghanistan and announcing the departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis, U.S. President Donald Trump is closing the year with a dramatic series of moves that will shrink American military power in critical parts of the world and likely enlarge his control over a sometimes-recalcitrant Pentagon.

Thursday evening, a day after his surprise announcement that the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawn, Trump announced that Mattis would be leaving in February. At about the same time, news organizations were reporting that Trump plans to announce a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Mattis, who was long rumored to have lost faith with the president, said in a stark letter to Trump that his own “views on treating allies with respect and also being clear eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.” He said that the president has “the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”

The decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria was the final straw for Mattis, one source familiar with the discussions told Foreign Policy. But the defense secretary has teetered on the edge of resigning for months, the source said, first over Trump’s cancellation of military exercises with South Korea. Mattis was also miffed when Trump ordered the creation of a Space Force, against his advice, and tapped Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley to replace Gen. Joseph Dunford as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, passing over his preferred pick, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein.

Though Mattis hung onto the job for longer than many observers expected, it was believed that he no longer had the president’s ear, especially after the defense chief was quoted in Bob Woodward’s book Fear as saying that “that the president acted like—and had the understanding of—‘a fifth- or sixth-grader.’ ” Trump later said in an interview with 60 Minutes that he thought Mattis was “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth. … He may leave.”

The late-week developments suggest that the president is at long last following his “gut,” as he likes to call it, and fulfilling his long-standing desire to draw down U.S. troops in conflicts that he has reportedly deemed unwinnable (although in the case of Syria he declared “victory” over the Islamic State).

In mid-November, Joint Chiefs Chairman Dunford said during the Halifax International Security Forum that Afghanistan was still mostly a “stalemate,” while the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General on Nov. 19 released a grim report on Afghanistan for the second quarter in a row, saying there was little progress toward reconciliation with the Taliban.

Even so, most military experts say the Afghan military and police are not capable of taking on the insurgent Taliban by themselves, and a dramatic U.S. troop withdrawal would almost certainly undercut efforts by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to open up talks with the Taliban.

It was not immediately clear what size withdrawal Trump is planning for Afghanistan. According to one news report, the president is considering pulling more than 3,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. There are about 14,000 troops currently on the ground in that country. NBC News reported that the White House has asked the Pentagon to look into multiple options, including a complete withdrawal. The New York Times later reported that the administration is planning to remove about 7,000 troops from the country.

Wednesday’s announcement of a withdrawal from Syria provoked a great deal of criticism, even from Republicans in Congress such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, who called the move “Obama-like.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, praised the move. Trump tweeted in response: “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!”

A withdrawal from Afghanistan after 17 years’ expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure is likely to cause even more of an outcry. Graham told ABC News that a departure from Afghanistan “will pave the way for another 9/11.”

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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