On Monday, Esper said that not all U.S. troops may be leaving Syria anyway. During a visit to Afghanistan, the secretary said that a residual force of U.S. troops may stay to guard oil fields from the Islamic State and others who could “seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”
This chaotic reshuffling of troops in the region comes amid considerable debate about their presence there at all. The practice has put not only the lives of Americans at risk in wars that often have no obvious benefit to the United States but has done little to calm things. Polls of U.S. veterans have shown that a majority believe U.S. military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria were not worth it.
However, as Trump has shown, withdrawing troops from these countries can set back other priorities. In Afghanistan, where Esper announced Monday that troop numbers had quietly been scaled back by 2,000, talks with the Taliban have broken down — with the extremist organization effectively discovering that one of its key demands in negotiations is effectively happening anyway.
In Syria, the removal of support for Kurdish forces led to the military intervention of Turkey, the spread of influence from the Syrian government and Russia, and the potential for a group like the Islamic State to regroup. U.S. troops serving in Syria are “livid” about a cease-fire agreement touted by Trump, according to a senior official who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity.
But Trump’s apparent desire for a smaller military footprint abroad, if not his methods, makes him some unlikely allies. During a debate among the Democratic candidates for the 2020 election last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) called for the United States to “get out” of the Middle East. “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East,” she added.
Though many Democrats are skeptical of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, Warren’s comments were unusually forthright. Warren, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is the leading candidate in recent polls, has stated she would pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan before a peace deal is reached.
Her ideas about the Middle East were criticized by her rival, former vice president Joe Biden, who suggested they are naive. “I have never heard anyone say with any serious background in foreign policy, ‘Pull all troops out of the Middle East,'” Biden told reporters in Ohio on Wednesday.
Warren’s campaign tried to clarify the candidate’s remarks in a subsequent statement that said she “was referencing combat troops, not those stationed in the Middle East in noncombat roles.” Spokeswoman Alexis Krieg added that Warren “believes we need to end the endless wars” and wanted to “responsibly remove U.S. troops from combat in the Middle East.”
The explanation belied the complexities of the U.S. presence in the Middle East. The United States has tens of thousands of troops stationed in the region who are not directly involved in conflict but certainly support conflicts, including those stationed in major (and expanding) air bases like Al Udeid in Qatar or the naval base in Bahrain.
It is not clear if Warren’s standard would apply to the 5,200 troops in Iraq who support Iraqi security services but do not engage in direct conflict, the 1,000 troops in Syria who supported the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces or even the 1,800 troops heading to Saudi Arabia to help deter Iran and its proxies.
But the idea that the U.S. position in the Middle East needs rethinking does have cache. “Does anybody think that what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years has actually been working?” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security director at the Center for New American Security and a former State Department and Pentagon official.
Before Trump and Warren, President Barack Obama had his own ideas about bringing troops home. “The time has come for us to end this engagement in Iraq,” he said on the campaign trail in Chicago in 2007. He said he was determined to bring troops home from Afghanistan before the end of his second term, and repeated the mantra that there was “no military solution” for disputes around the world.
While Obama did pull U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, he sent thousands back in 2014 as the Iraqi military crumbled under pressure from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, his plans to pull out of Afghanistan completely never came to pass. During his two terms, the United States conducted airstrikes or military raids on seven nations: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Obama may have succeeded in ending U.S. involvement in the worst of the fighting, but he left troops deeply embedded in regional conflicts that proved just as hard to decisively end. Trump’s complaints about U.S. military presence overseas appear far broader — he has taken aim at relationships like the basing of U.S. troops in South Korea, Japan and Germany — but also more contradictory.
On Monday, the same day that U.S. troops pulled out of Syria as Kurds threw stones and rotten fruit at them, Trump warned that “we may have to get in wars, too” and pointed toward ongoing tensions with Iran. “If Iran does something, they’ll be hit like they’ve never been hit before. I mean, we have things that we’re looking at.”
That muddled view only adds to the strains on America’s military presence abroad. That presence has already sprawled further then imagined — one 2015 estimate puts it at 800 bases in 70 countries, far more than all other nations combined — because of a combination of the legacies of World War II, the Cold War, the war on terrorism, security interests of the host nations and even plain old mission creep.
Obama tried to solve the puzzle of U.S. troops locked in foreign wars, while Trump is hoping to ignore it. But for now, it still seems to be that keeping U.S. troops in the Middle East is proving far easier than bringing them home.