WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP’S decision to slash U.S. troop levels in Syria and Afghanistan was revealed two weeks ago, it seemed, at least, clear-cut. The 2,000 U.S. personnel in eastern Syria, who with Kurdish and Arab allies have been fighting the Islamic State, would depart within 30 days; meanwhile, the Pentagon would prepare a plan to withdraw about half of the 14,000-plus U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
By this week, however, Mr. Trump’s intentions were anything but transparent. Officials were telling reporters that the Syria withdrawal would be extended over 120 days — and if Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is to be believed, there may be no firm timetable at all. After having lunch with the president on Sunday, Mr. Graham tweeted that “the President will make sure any withdrawal from Syria will . . . ensure” that the Islamic State is “permanently destroyed,” Iran does not gain an advantage and “our Kurdish allies are protected.” That would require far longer than 120 days.
On Wednesday, Mr. Trump muddied the waters further, falsely claiming he had never said the troop withdrawal would be fast while disowning the 120-day calendar. Of Iran’s role in Syria, he said, “They can do whatever they want” — thereby contradicting Mr. Graham.
Mr. Trump’s Afghanistan plans are even more opaque. Despite reportedly ordering the troop cut, the president has said virtually nothing about the move in public, and the commanders in Afghanistan say they have received no new orders. When Mr. Trump agreed to increase the U.S. force by 4,000 in 2017, the idea was to force the Taliban to accept a negotiated settlement. Talks between a special U.S. envoy and Taliban representatives have since gotten underway, raising hopes for a deal. Yet the president has offered no explanation for why he would order a withdrawal now, before any agreement has been reached and while Afghan government forces are struggling to hold back Taliban advances.
Not only the Taliban still poses a threat. As a host of experts have pointed out in the past two weeks, Mr. Trump’s claim that the Islamic State has been defeated is simply not true. Official U.S. estimates are that some 30,000 of its fighters may still be at large, spread between Iraq and Syria. Among present and former U.S. officials, there is a near-universal consensus that if the pressure on the movement is not maintained, it will quickly revive and pose “a threat to our homeland,” as former CIA deputy director Michael Morell and former undersecretary of defense for intelligence Mike Vickers wrote in The Post.
If Mr. Trump has quietly changed his mind in the face of such assessments, that would be welcome. But that is not clear, either. In public, Mr. Trump continues to defend the withdrawals, though without offering substantive arguments. Instead, he says he is fulfilling campaign promises and renouncing a U.S. role as “the policeman of the world.” “We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he told troops in Iraq — who must have wondered if they were among those “suckers.”
Mr. Trump owes those soldiers, and the country as a whole, a better explanation. If he believes the United States should no longer fight the Islamic State in Syria, or the Taliban and Islamic State in Afghanistan, he should deliver a substantive address to the country laying out why. He should dispatch his aides to Capitol Hill to detail his new strategy and answer questions. There would be many — which is perhaps why the president hides in the cloud of confusion he has created.