Security Brief

Trump Signals He Wants Troops Home by November

The proposal to withdraw from Afghanistan doesn’t follow the timeline of the peace deal signed with the Taliban in February.

U.S. President Donald Trump departs the White House on May 27 in Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump departs the White House on May 27 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump renews his push to bring troops home from Afghanistan by election day, another blow is dealt to the ailing Iran nuclear deal, and what to make of skirmishes on the China-India border.

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Home for Election Day?

It’s long been a tug of war between U.S. President Donald Trump and his senior military advisors to keep the nearly 19-year-old war in Afghanistan going, but with the 2020 presidential election looming, the unorthodox commander-in-chief said again this week that he’s ready to bring U.S. troops back home.

“We are acting as a police force, not the fighting force that we are, in Afghanistan,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “After 19 years, it is time for them to police their own Country. Bring our soldiers back home but closely watch what is going on and strike with a thunder like never before, if necessary!”

Out of step. The comments came after The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Trump’s top military advisors planned to present the president with the option to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country by the November election. The stance again appears to put Trump at odds with the rest of his administration on a key foreign-policy issue: the arduously brokered peace deal with the Taliban.

Bringing the troops home by November would not follow the timeline laid out in that agreement. Under the Feb. 29 deal, withdrawal below 8,600 U.S troops should proceed on a “conditions-based” approach, meaning that the Taliban would have to continue reducing violent attacks—something the Trump administration has said is not happening.

What We’re Watching

Death knell of the Iran deal? Maybe. The Trump administration said it is willing to use its rights as a participant in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to trigger punishing sanctions on Iran if the U.N. Security Council fails to agree to extend an arms embargo this year. At the same time, the United States is distancing itself from the Obama-era deal two years after formally withdrawing.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration would end sanctions waivers to Russian, Chinese, and European companies working on sensitive Iranian nuclear sites, a move that nonproliferation specialists say could limit U.S. visibility into Iran’s programs and increase Tehran’s desire to enrich uranium.

Showdown in the Himalayas. China’s military build-up and incursions across the border with India have led to the biggest uptick in tensions between the nuclear powers in decades. Parts of the 2,000-mile border remain contested. While border skirmishes between the countries are nothing new, the scale and frequency of the latest clashes could be. Reports estimate there could be three Chinese brigades in the region—suggesting thousands of troops involved.

A return to nuclear testing? The Trump administration is mulling the United States’ first nuclear test since just after the end of the Cold War, the Washington Post reports. Officials say that Russia and China have already begun conducting low-yield nuclear tests, though this is not substantiated by public data. On Wednesday, Drew Walter, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, clarified: There “has been no policy change” regarding live nuclear testing, but the president could order a quick test “within months” if he wanted. 

More Taiwan-U.S. defense deals. The Taiwanese defense ministry announced on Monday that it plans to purchase a series of anti-ship missiles from the United States, the latest effort by the Trump administration to bolster Taiwan’s defenses and curb Chinese power in the region. The announcement follows reports that the administration recently informed Congress of a possible sale of torpedoes to Taiwan valued at around $180 million.

And more Saudi arms sales. The Trump administration just can’t seem to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. Over loud objections from Congress, the White House is pursuing yet another arms deal with Riyadh, according to Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. One previous arms sale was under investigation by the State Department’s watchdog before Trump abruptly sacked him earlier this month.

Movers and Shakers

Trump donor gets cushy post. A deep-pocketed Republican campaign donor, Lee Rizzuto, was tapped to be the top U.S. diplomat in Bermuda this week. Trump initially nominated Rizzuto, the heir to the Conair beauty empire, to be the ambassador to Barbados but his nomination was held up in the Senate after it emerged he promoted fringe conspiracy theories on social media.

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have made a habit of gifting glitzy ambassador posts to campaign donors with no prior diplomatic experience, but Trump has taken it to a new level, as Foreign Policy has reported.

New Pentagon appointment. Trump intends to nominate Lucas Polakowski to be an assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs. Polakowski retired as a Major General in the U.S. Army Reserve. Guy Roberts, who previously held the post, stepped down in April 2019 amid a Pentagon sexual harassment investigation.

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The Week Ahead

The Pentagon’s director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, is speaking on Friday about AI and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.S. Agency for International Development deputy Bonnie Glick will give a talk on Friday at the Hudson Institute on U.S. foreign assistance and great power competition during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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