Defense One on a view from the US Special Ops world involved in trying to support the locals in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan….
Trump’s withdrawal from from Syria is what military leaders feared — and exactly what he promised.
Five days before Donald Trump became president, I reported that U.S. elite troops and commanders were worried that the incoming commander in chief lacked the patience for the Obama Doctrine to work in Syria and Iraq. Now we know the answer: No.
This week, Trump decided he’d seen enough and ordered U.S.troops to quit Syria. The president’s decision to abruptly end the mission was so far afield from the U.S. military’s core beliefs that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis tried to talk him out of it, failed, and surprised the president with an immediate resignation letter from his back pocket.
The truth is Trump never knew what he wanted. He has no strategy or plan for the Middle East. And nobody knows why he made this decision now. Ever since the campaign trail, the brash businessman from New York who loved to armchair-quarterback the White House said he would defeat ISIS better and faster than Obama, but also that he would pull the U.S. out of the wars in the Middle East, and make other countries (presumably like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and European allies in NATO) fend more for themselves. Trump somehow managed to run on a promise of massive intervention and isolationism at the same time. And Americans bought it.
Since he took office, national security leaders have warned the president time and again that he can’t have it both ways. They were able to convince the rookie commander in chief to listen to the generals and not retreat — not from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Korea, or NATO. They held the president in check for 23 months. But in the Oval Office this week, Mattis finally lost. Stephen Miller, the president’s hyper-nationalist adviser, won.
The sad irony is that Mattis was already giving Trump what he wanted. The fights in Iraq and Syria were being conducted a la the Obama Doctrine, which addressed regional problems not with U.S. heavy divisions but with far smaller units of elite troops who recruit, train, and help local forces to fight for themselves and in America’s strategic interests. (Also, generous amounts of airpower.) In short, it’s the special operations forces way, known as “by, with, and through,” and commanders in late 2016 said that it finally was working in Syria and Iraq like in no other place before.
The U.S. found willing and able local fighters in Iraq to build a new and improved Iraqi army and elite counterterrorism forces. In Syria, Kurds and Arabs joined the U.S.-led Syrian Democratic Forces, took back their lands, and today hold about half of Syria free from the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
But by September 2017, U.S. special operations commanders on the ground were worried that their bosses in Washington would throw it all away….
On a holiday visit to American troops overseas, Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, was asked by a Marine about President Trump’s orders to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
What, the Marine wanted to know, did the orders mean for those on combat deployments?
“That’s a really good question,” the commandant said. “And the honest answer is I have no idea.”
At every stop on his tour, Gen. Neller has faced questions about what the recent drawdown orders and the resignation of Defense SecretaryJim Mattis mean for Marines and for the broader U.S. military strategy in the Middle East.
The questions have come from Marines bundled in parkas while training in Norway as well as those sweating in the heat of Afghanistan, who are eager to know how the turmoil in Washington affects them.
“Are your families asking if you’re leaving?” he questioned a group of Marines in Helmand province. Many nodded yes.
“You’re not leaving,” he deadpanned, to laughs from troops midway through a months-long deployment.
At this point, commanders regardless of their rank have few details on Mr. Trump’s plans—with no timelines, hard numbers or orders to Pentagon brass about the matter. During the trip, Gen. Neller has worked to quash scuttlebutt and motivate troops, warning them to avoid complacency and homesickness.
The Marines have laughed with their leader and his honesty, but it belied a frustration among officers and personnel about the lack of details from Washington…