GZERO Media logo

Trump's military exit ramp

Art by Gabriella Turrisi

CNN and the New York Times reported on Monday that before he leaves office on January 20, President Trump will order the withdrawal of nearly half the US troops still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and nearly all who remain in Somalia.

If he follows through, this will be the president's final step toward ending the costly US commitment to fight terrorism and bolstering the stability of fragile governments in these countries.

The plan has drawn plenty of fire from within the US government. Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper not long after Esper had informed the White House that he and Pentagon top brass believed that security conditions had not been met for a troop drawdown.

In addition, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned this week that "a rapid withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan now would hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm." He compared the idea with "the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975."

The debate over this plan gets at the heart of President Trump's attempt to redefine the US role in the world. Before 2017, all post-World War II US presidents had argued that an assertive US global leadership role serves the US national interest.

Trump has challenged this orthodoxy, both before and during his presidency. Too often, he's argued, his predecessors have pushed US soldiers into endless commitments to the security of other countries and allowed selfish "allies" to free-ride at the expense of US taxpayers.

There are strong arguments on both sides of this debate. Here are the most notable:

Against withdrawal

Critics of Trump's plan say that Bush and Obama administration drawdowns of US troops from Iraq (2007-2011) enabled the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, a problem that proved costlier and more dangerous than the US troop presence.

On Tuesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned against a "premature withdrawal" from Afghanistan. In fact, the Taliban have become more aggressive in recent months, particularly against Afghan government forces, and October was the deadliest month for Afghan civilians in more than a year.

Abandoning the fight against terrorists in vulnerable countries signals to US allies (and potential allies) that Washington is not to be trusted.

For withdrawal

For how many years will withdrawal from these countries remain "premature?" Must US troops wait for the day when Afghanistan has a stable government capable of controlling all of Afghan territory? If the goal is more modest than that, why hasn't it been achieved in the 19 years that US and NATO forces have been there?

Must Washington wait until al-Qaeda and ISIS renounce terrorism, and Iran withdraws support for militias in Iraq? Or until Somalia becomes a stable country?

By remaining in these countries all these years, doesn't Washington allow its allies there to believe that they don't really need to prepare to function without US help?

In Somalia, much of the recent US military effort has focused on training and backing a Somali commando unit of 850 troops that has scored major wins against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group. Critics of Trump's plan say this force can't function without active US involvement, but why should Somalis prepare to survive without US help as long as they believe the Americans will stay?

So why not withdraw all the troops? President Trump tweeted on October 7 that all US troops should be brought home from Afghanistan by Christmas. In Iraq and Afghanistan, a small number of remaining troops will allow the US to launch counterterrorism strikes from a single command center. US forces will also remain in Kenya and Djibouti, allowing for drone attacks on al-Shabab inside Somalia. The plan leaked to the press this week looks like a compromise.

Give Trump's arguments their due. Americans need to debate these questions, and past presidents have too often fallen back on bromides about "America's responsibility to lead."

What is America's proper role in the 21st century world? What do you think?

Wales, early 19th century: During breaks from his law studies, William Robert Grove indulges in his passion for science to become an inventor. On his honeymoon in Europe, he learns about the new energy source everyone's talking about: electricity. After learning that electricity allows water to be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, his intuition leads him to an idea that ends up making him a pioneer of sustainable energy production.

Watch the story of William Robert Grove in Eni's MINDS series, where we travel through time seeking scientists.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

More Show less

Iran rules out nuclear talks… for now: Iran has reportedly rejected an offer to join direct talks with the US and EU over its nuclear program, saying it won't start the conversation until sanctions on Iran's economy are eased. To be clear, this does NOT mean that prospects for reviving the Iran nuclear deal are dead. Europeans and the Biden administration want a return to the 2015 nuclear agreement, and Iran certainly needs the economic boost that would come from a removal of sanctions. But Tehran is going to try to maximize its leverage before any talks begin, especially since this is a sensitive election year in in the country. Iran's leaders are going to play hard to get for a while longer before edging their way back to the bargaining table. Still, it's high stakes diplomacy here between parties that have almost no mutual trust — and one misstep could throw things off track quickly.

More Show less
18: A week after threatening protesters with a severe crackdown, Myanmar's ruling junta killed at least 18 people across the country in the bloodiest day of clashes since the generals staged a coup last month.
More Show less

The country's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, joins Ian Bremmer to talk vaccines, school re-openings, and when—and how—the pandemic could finally come end. He was last on GZERO World just weeks before the pandemic hit in the fall of 2019 and he described at the time what kept him up at night: a "pandemic-like respiratory illness." This time, he'll talk about how closely that nightmare scenario foreshadowed the COVID-19 pandemic. He'll also offer some guidance about what public health measures vaccinated Americans should continue to take in the coming months (hint: masks stay on).

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.


Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Biden strikes Syria. Now what?

Quick Take