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.