Trump’s last ditch, futile effort to end the US’s ‘forever wars’

Although Trump was a really terrible president and is an awful human being, he should at least receive some credit for not starting any new major wars, which is the low bar we have for US presidents, although he continued the drone strikes and other military offensives in the ongoing wars. He campaigned in 2016 on ending America’s ‘forever wars’ around the globe but here he was unsuccessful, mainly because he lacked focus and got easily distracted by other issues, often utterly petty ones. He was also thwarted by the many military people he appointed to key positions as his chief of staff, defense secretary, and national security advisor who were able to outmaneuver even the tentative movements he made towards ending the wars. In fact, they actually persuaded him to increase the troop levels in Afghanistan as part of yet another so-called ‘surge’.

The military needs to have wars in order to make its lavish funding secure. Trump made the mistake of pandering to the military as a way of obscuring his own background of being a draft dodger and this made him, at least in the early days, unable to defy them, as this report explains.

Trump’s calls to halt the “endless wars” could be traced back to at least 2011, when he was a real estate developer and reality TV celebrity. He’d sent scores of tweets railing against the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan while mulling the idea of running for president.

Once in office, though, Trump’s ambitions to withdraw from Afghanistan and other countries were subdued, slow-rolled, and detoured by military leaders.

Trump did not help his own agenda when he surrounded himself at the start with generals, many of whom had made their careers at U.S. Central Command. They fundamentally disagreed with the president’s worldview. They were personally invested in Afghanistan. And several would come to see it as their job to save America and the world from their commander in chief.

By the spring of 2017, two generals Trump had installed in top positions — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in an interagency process run by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — had begun working on an option to send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

When it came down to it, Trump was indecisive. In the view of top officials, he did not seem to want to own the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal.

This allowed the Pentagon to dismiss his tweets and rants and maintain the status quo. They stuck to the National Defense Strategy — a document they fully believed Trump hadn’t bothered to read.

At the end, Trump seemed to want to salvage that particular promise but as usual it was a half-baked effort undertaken after he lost the election, when on November 9th, 2020 he sent a scribbled note through an aide John McEntee to retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, the aide to the newly appointed acting defense secretary Christopher Miller that said:

1. Get us out of Afghanistan.
2. Get us out of Iraq and Syria.
3. Complete the withdrawal from Germany.
4. Get us out of Africa.

As head of the powerful Presidential Personnel Office, McEntee had Trump’s ear. Even so, Macgregor was astonished. He told McEntee he doubted they could do all of these things before Jan. 20.

“Then do as much as you can,” McEntee replied.

In Macgregor’s opinion, Miller probably couldn’t act on his own authority to execute a total withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan because he was serving in an acting capacity. If this was for real, Macgregor told McEntee, then it was going to need an order from the president.

The one-page memo was delivered by courier to Christopher Miller’s office two days later, on the afternoon of Nov. 11. The order arrived seemingly out of nowhere, and its instructions, signed by Trump, were stunning: All U.S. military forces were to be withdrawn from Somalia by Dec. 31, 2020. All U.S. forces were to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Jan. 15, 2021.

News of the memo spread quickly throughout the Pentagon. Top military brass, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, were appalled. This was not the way to conduct policy — with no consultation, no input, no process for gaming out consequences or offering alternatives.

A call was quickly placed to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. In turn, Cipollone notified the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. Neither Cipollone nor O’Brien had any idea what the order was or where it had come from.

Neither did the office of the staff secretary — whose job it was to vet all the paper that reached the president’s desk. Yet the paper bore Trump’s distinctive Sharpie signature.

The U.S. government’s top national security leaders soon realized they were dealing with an off-the-books operation by the commander in chief himself.

Many would rally to push back — sometimes openly and in coordination, at other times so discreetly that top Trump administration officials had to turn to classified intercepts from the National Security Agency for clues.

But this last-ditch Trump move was too late and he was easily thwarted by the military who have a lot of experience in Washington political infighting to get what they want, especially since the Republican party and its leader Mitch McConnell were also adamantly opposed to withdrawal. What happened next showed how the military works to keep wars going.

In the view of Trump’s mistrusting inner circle, this was typical of Pentagon leadership: Delay key decisions by disputing that strategic meetings had led to consensus, insist the process was still ongoing, and leak apocalyptic scenarios to the media.

These were the tactics Trump allies believed military leaders had perfected to obstruct presidents over the course of decades.

Now — in the face of the Macgregor alternative — the drawdown plan Milley had once scorned was looking like a godsend to the generals. In addition to the 2,500 U.S. troops, there would be thousands of additional U.S. contractors, NATO troops and NATO contractors all remaining in Afghanistan, which was seen as a sufficient force to maintain counterterrorism capabilities.

O’Brien told the president that drawing down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan was the closest Trump could come to fulfilling his campaign promise while protecting U.S. interests and maintaining leverage in peace negotiations with the Taliban. And he was putting the U.S. on the path to ending the forever war.

And Trump just gave in and left office with all the wars still ongoing. Joe Biden has committed to an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11th, thus hopefully ending the longest of the current wars.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11th, thus hopefully ending the longest of the current wars.

    It may take as long as the end of the year for the Taliban to seize power and slaughter US collaborators, feminists, and other modernizers, who evidently will not get any seats on the last helicopters out.

  2. invivoMark says

    @Pierce R. Butler,

    How many more years does the US military need to remain in Afghanistan before that isn’t a danger? Another 20? 40?

    More likely you think that the US should be a permanent colonialist presence in the country.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    invivoMark @ # 2: More likely you think that the US should be a permanent colonialist presence in the country.

    Comprehension problems much?

    I just want to see Biden & Co arrange for evacuations of those Afghans most likely to get purged by the jihadists. Of course, that would mean direct confrontation with US xenophobes, and the Afghan diaspora in the US has no leverage within the Democratic Party (nor the peace movement, which carefully avoids this question) to do anything to avert the predictable bloodbath.

  4. mnb0 says

    “he should at least receive some credit”
    I don’t think so; he only didn’t due to his incompetence, including lack of focus.
    Which means I fear the day a competent extreme right Republican gets voted into the White House. And I don’t trust JoeB at all in this respect.

    “thus hopefully ending the longest of the current wars”
    Hopefully? The Taliban will return and that’s not something I hope for.
    Pierce RB is right on this; shifting the goalposts like invivoM does won’t affect this in anyway. This means I won’t blame JoeB for this. He’s in a lose-lose situation; responsible is the Bush administration, who screwed up around 2004.
    If it’s any comfort, the Dutch government (the Dutch were in Helmand for a couple of years) won’t make such arrangements either, for exactly the same reasons. And that’s something I will blame JoeB for indeed, like I blame Dutch MP Mark Rutte.

  5. jrkrideau says

    The US--Taliban agreement was to withdraw all troops by the end of May. Currently the US is talking Sept 11th. The Taliban. I am pretty sure, feel that the US has broken its word. I suspect they will not be impressed at one more demonstration that the USA is not agreement capable.

    There are articles on various US military--oriented sites/ in magazines where senior officers discuss finding bases in close/neighbouring countries that seems to imply that the “withdrawal” is more form than substance. The impression I got from one article was that air support, intelligence and possibly even supply to the Afghan Gov”t would be a telephone call away, essentially violating the spirit if not the letter of the agreement. Between leaving “contractors” aka mercenaries behind and trying to set up alternative bases in close proximity if I were the Taliban I would consider the withdrawal agreement moot.

    BTW does every official in the USA fail to realize that the Internet does not stop at the US border and that an awful lot of people watch the US Gov’t like hawks?

    @ 3 Pierce R. Butler
    I just want to see Biden & Co arrange for evacuations of those Afghans most likely to get purged by the jihadists.

    It would be nice but the abandonment of the marsh Arabs and Kurds in Iraq does not make me optimistic.

  6. TGAP Dad says

    Let’s not forget that the 2020 presidential runner-up also abandoned Syrian US bases, along with our Kurdish allies, after chatting with Eroğan, his autocratic kindred spirit. I will never forget the videos of Russian troops moving in to (former) US bases, and helping themselves to US weaponry, nor those of the Kurdish allies abandoned to the savagery of the Turkish military.

  7. says

    This was not the way to conduct policy — with no consultation, no input, no process for gaming out consequences or offering alternatives.

    There has been 20 years of consultation, input, and gaming out consequences. All the Pentagon has managed is “if we put in a lot of troops we’ll still lose.” Even at the peak of the invasion, troop strengths were insufficient -- so all the “surges” amounted to was more war crimes, same results.

    Trump may have had his broken clock moment and also seen “the deep state” -- the embedded war bureaucracy that refuses to quit because it defines “losing” as quitting, but doesn’t know how to “win” either. The war wing of the government basically ignored Trump.

    2,500 troops. It’s hard to conceptualize how stupid that debate is, when the US was losing with 200,000 troops. They’re just going to leave those guys out there to get ganked by the taliban, then beat the war-drums for more troops.

    You know the Benghazi investigation? They ought to be investigating whether US forces were deliberately deployed in an idiotic manner.

  8. bmiller says

    mnbo: I actually blame the saintly Peanut Farmer. Partisan Democrats forget how much of the awful legacy of foreign policy and humanitarian disasters in the United States directly trace back to the Carter cabal. Afghanistan. Iran. South American. Central America. Indonesia/East Timor.

    The wrecking crew that included Henry Kissinger and Brzhinski, continued or initiated some awful foreign policy decsions.. I don’t care how many houses he builds for Habita

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