Having drifted back and forth a few times on the US withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, President Trump seemed solid on leaving last week, but facing growing opposition from the Senate now shows signs of backtracking once again.
Previously talking up how the wars in Afghanistan and Syria can’t last forever, Trump is now saying he wants a “smaller number” of troops to stay in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban already making it clear that was a non-starter for the peace deal.
In Syria, Trump is now focused on the idea that the pullout can only happen after assuring that “Israel is protected,” which is as close to a recipe for permanent warfare as one can get. Israeli officials have made clear they want the war to be about Iran, not ISIS.
And that seems to be he case in Iraq, as well, where President Trump is now saying US troops will remain, seemingly forever, to “watch Iran,” and make sure they don’t “do nuclear weapons or other things.”
Even with the slow, indefinitely half-departures, Trump was very hesitant, emphasizing that the US troops can “come back if we have to.” It’s going to be very hard for the US to “come back,” however, if they never get around to leaving.
All of this never leaving is neatly in line with the stated positions of the Pentagon for years, but breaks wildly from President Trump’s recent talk of actually leaving some countries. The split seems to have coincided neatly with the Senate’s non-binding resolution expressing opposition to leaving either Syria or Afghanistan.
Though originally it seemed President Trump was going to stick to his guns on the matter, having already shrugged off opposition from within his administration, the pressure seems to be getting to him, and policy is slowly defaulting back to permanent wars with nebulous goals.
Why that is suddenly happening isn’t entirely clear, as the Pentagon’s outspoken opposition to ending wars seemed to do little but alienate Trump from former Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the other hawks in the administration failing in their own efforts to “walk back” the policy.
In the end, the weakness in Trump’s commitment to the pullout may reflect both Trump’s general lack of commitment to support the policy, and more importantly, his reluctance to clarify what the pullout policy actually is, or was, beyond the most broad strokes, allowing it to be revised on the fly.