Security Brief

Will Trump’s Troop Drawdown Plans Destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan (Again)?

Successive presidents have promised to finally bring the troops home. But time and again neither country has shown its security forces are strong enough to ward off insurgents on their own.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to the White House on August 20 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to the White House on August 20 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

By Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump announces troop drawdowns in both Iraq and Afghanistan ahead of elections, fallout from Woodward’s interviews with the president, a messy break-up between Washington and the World Health Organization, and more.

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A Troop Drawdown, Just in Time for Elections

U.S. President Donald Trump is finally coming closer to fulfilling his campaign pledge to end U.S. troop commitments overseas, just weeks before he faces an uphill fight for re-election. On Wednesday, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, said the Pentagon would bring home nearly half the remaining troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The planned withdrawals would see U.S. forces in Afghanistan fall to 4,500 and to just 3,000 in Iraq.

The move–long sought by Trump–may also prove politically popular overseas, especially in especially in Iraq, where parliament urged the expulsion of U.S. forces after an American drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad in January. A former U.S. official said in an interview that the U.S. drawdown would give new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi more maneuvering room with political opponents. That could allow him to make the case for Iran to pull out some of its own militia forces in exchange for the American withdrawal.

Yet both Afghanistan and Iraq have struggled to build up internal security forces strong enough to ward off insurgent groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban. Mick Mulroy, the Pentagon’s former top Middle East policy official in the Trump administration and now an ABC News national security analyst, said the move “shows that we have confidence in Iraq’s security forces and their ability to operate more independently than in the past.” But he added that the United States “should be continuously assessing the situation to see if we have to slow down the withdrawal or even send troops back.”

Iraq’s elite counterterrorism service lost 40 percent of its combat power in the nine-month battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State that ended in 2017, according to a Pentagon finding.

U.S. veterans torn on the plan. Stars and Stripes interviewed a number of veterans on the idea of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan after nearly two decades of operations. The reactions were mixed, but the consensus is that they’re not sure what was accomplished. “That the soldier in question, alive or dead, did their job—they won the battle on the ground, as they were trained to do—there is comfort in that,” Army Staff Sgt. Séamus Fennessy said. “But simultaneously, there is a sense of bitterness against the politicians and bureaucrats for big-picture incompetence.”


What We’re Watching

Waiting on the NDAA. The Pentagon’s yearly authorizing bill will likely have to wait until after the election, a top Republican lawmaker said on Wednesday. Speaking at the Defense News conference, retiring Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee said a handful of differences between the House and Senate were causing the delay. Trump has threatened to veto the bill for a provision that would rename bases honoring Confederate leaders, and the Senate has favored more money for military operations in the Asia-Pacific to counter China.

All the president’s tapes. Journalist Bob Woodward conducted 18 interviews with Trump as part of his forthcoming book, ‘Rage,’ and, yet again, Washington is rocked by explosive revelations and controversial comments from the president. Among the takeaways: The president knowingly downplayed the risks of the coronavirus in the early months of the outbreak, even while acknowledging in private that the virus was deadly and highly contagious. Former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis and former director of National Intelligence Dan Coates thought of the president as “dangerous” to U.S. national security, and Coates wondered just what Russia might have on the president. Trump also reportedly disparaged top U.S. military brass in 2017 as “a bunch of p*ssies” who “care more about their alliances than they do about trade deals.”

WHO, ya gonna call? Trump made clear he wants the United States out of the World Health Organization, blaming it for fumbling the response to the coronavirus pandemic and catering too much to China. The State Department issued a sweeping directive to U.S. government personnel to curtail their contacts with WHO officials. But at the same time, the administration is carving out exemptions and plans to deliver tens of millions of dollars to the organization, given its important role in tackling other deadly diseases and viruses like polio or influenza. U.S. diplomats and health experts say Trump’s grand plan to leave the world’s leading health organization in the midst of a pandemic is easier said than done.


Movers and Shakers

Court shortlist. President Trump said Wednesday he would consider naming three influential foreign-policy Republicans in Congress to the Supreme Court if he wins a second term: former 2016 presidential rival Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Josh Hawley of Missouri. Cruz serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while both Cotton and Hawley are members of the Senate Armed Services panel pursuing a more forceful U.S. policy toward China.

Medal of Honor. Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne will receive the medal of honor from Trump at the White House on Friday for his role in rescuing 70 hostages from ISIS custody in a 2015 raid in northern Iraq. Payne is the 19th U.S. service member to receive the highest military commendation since the end of the Vietnam War, according to Military.com.

New Afghanistan envoy. Trump is expected to nominate William Ruger, a foreign-policy expert who has advocated taking all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, as the next ambassador to Kabul, the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports. Ruger is vice president for research and policy at the libertarian-oriented Charles Koch Institute.


Quote of the Week

“I also believe that the deep and special friendship between us will work as a magical force that leads the progress of the DPRK-US relations”—North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to Trump, in one of the two leaders’ 27 so-called “love letters” Bob Woodward obtained.


Foreign Policy Recommends

 Military risks getting sucked into the 2020 maelstrom. Peter Feaver writes for Foreign Policy on the risks of the U.S. military getting dragged further into the center of the heated election cycle, whether it wants to or not (spoiler alert: it doesn’t.) “Of course, each new report of Trump mocking soldiers risks driving him to overcompensate in some other way that further drags the military into the daily campaign gyre,” Feaver writes. “The military’s revulsion reflex when it comes to partisan politics is healthy for U.S. democracy. It should be allowed to quietly retreat from the campaign field while the civilians do the partisan fighting.”


The Week Ahead

Sept. 11: 9/11 World Trade Center Remembrance Ceremony

Sept. 14: Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is set to hold a leadership election after longtime Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans to step down late last month.

Sept. 15: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks in a virtual event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Sept. 15: Brookings Institution defense experts are hosting a virtual panel on how the 2020 elections will shape U.S. defense policy.

Sept. 16: Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, gives the annual State of the European Union address.


Odds and Ends

Blame it on the hackers. China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom found himself in the news after he “liked” a pornographic tweet—or at least whoever is in charge of his official Twitter account did. The Chinese embassy claimed it was a “vicious attack” by anti-China hackers and are calling on Twitter to investigate.


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

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