Mission Accomplished? Donald Trump Wants to End America's Endless Wars, but Military Says Victory Is an Illusion

Waste of money? Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump with members of the U.S. military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty
Waste of money? Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump with members of the U.S. military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

President Donald Trump wants to bring Americans home again. Seventeen years after the 9/11 attacks, U.S. troops are currently engaged in seven countries under outdated legislation, and the commander in chief has suggested that two of those open-ended wars may be closing.

Ignoring officials' advice, he declared victory over the undefeated Islamic State group (ISIS) last month and ordered the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. He also significantly cut American forces in Afghanistan by instructing the Pentagon to rotate home 7,000 service members in early 2019.

Like George W. Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished," Trump has asserted that American forces will come home under a banner of victory. He argued on Twitter that if his predecessors brought troops home and crippled militant extremists, they would have been hailed as national heroes.

Growing public fatigue with endless wars was a significant factor in Trump's election, research suggests. Voters are frustrated with foreign policies that commit U.S. troops and money but lack a clear definition of victory—with no exit strategy, in other words. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 presidential candidate and normally a scorching Trump critic, has told reporters she agreed with him on withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan. And the military—that 1 percent of U.S. citizens who bear the burden—doesn't disagree. Current and former Pentagon officials tell Newsweek that Trump isn't wrong to want an end to those wars and that the president has a point that some of the criticism he has received is unfair.

Fifty-six percent of current and former U.S. service members approve of the job Trump is doing, while 43 percent disapprove, according to a recent nationwide survey from the Associated Press. (The AP polled more than 4,000 current U.S. military personnel and veterans.) Fifty-one percent said they believe the Trump administration has made the U.S. safer from terrorism; 35 percent said they do not.

But military officials say Trump's search for immediate results in long-term national security strategies are getting the better of him: Wars do not end in iconic moments (except in World War II, perhaps). And victory, especially in Afghanistan, is an illusion.

Reveille Comes Whether You Want It To or Not

The tweet landed a minute after midnight Eastern time on January 1. The announcement was from the Defense Department: Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive with no military experience and a year and a half in government, was now acting secretary of defense.

We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018

Reveille comes whether you want it to or not, a fellow Marine once told me. Translation: We knew this was coming, and here it is. The tweet made clear that James Mattis, last of the generals touted as the "adults" in the administration—and an outspoken opponent of the Syrian withdrawal—was gone.

Since the U.S. first intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2014, the American footprint has grown, now around 2,000 strong. As for ISIS, estimates suggest its numbers range between 25,000 to 30,000 fighters and sympathizers who are embedded in the local population.

A senior Defense Department source, speaking three days before Mattis's departure, tells Newsweek no U.S. general was happy with the decision to pull back U.S. troops from Syria. The withdrawal could spark an ISIS resurgence similar to the Taliban's growing influence and territory in Afghanistan. Time spent forging alliances in the region and training the Syrian Democratic Forces feels wasted, the official says. What was all the bloodshed and sacrifice for if, in the end, America was simply going to leave the Kurds open to slaughter? Not to mention the costs among individuals and nations.

"The generals right now are working on making sure that the withdrawal is orderly, safe and with the least amount of exposure for current and future operations and relationships with our local partners," says the source, who has knowledge of the Syria plans. "Were [military leaders] caught off guard with [Trump's] decision? Yes. But the president ordered something, and their job is to provide him with the best way to do that something. They don't make policy."

The president's decision to withdraw was not communicated through proper channels before he tweeted about it, the source says. The conversation before a decision normally involves the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Council and the State Department. That did not occur, fueling concern among the brass—and U.S. allies—about the many unknowns and the mercurial president.

U.S. officials tell Newsweek the sudden withdrawal of forces would undercut strategic U.S. alliances with regional allies; free Russia and Iran to re-establish a full military presence and solid footing in the Mediterranean; and leave U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters vulnerable to being decimated by a Turkish air campaign. A complete withdrawal would mean giving up a valuable regional position to forces that threaten U.S. interests in the area, including the interests of allies such as Israel and, to some extent, Jordan.

"It takes time to ensure you have appropriate checks and balances when you decide to withdraw your presence in such a manner. Alliances—past, current and future—may be permanently jeopardized. Strategy and priorities may change, but we need to concern ourselves with the effects of every decision," the senior Defense Department source says.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina persuaded the frustrated president to slow the withdrawal from Syria, expanding the timeline from 30 days to four months, Newsweek confirmed. The news was first reported by The New York Times.

Voters are tired of endless wars. Protesters gather outside the White House and speak out against the strike in Syria on April 14, 2018. Tasos Katopodis/Getty

Graham outlined the conditions the president will meet before U.S. forces pull out. Among them is the permanent destruction of ISIS, deterring Iranian operations and protecting Kurdish fighters. Pentagon officials were uncomfortable with the short timeline and tentative objectives.

National security adviser John Bolton said U.S. forces would remain in Syria until ISIS was defeated and Turkey gave assurances not to attack the Kurds. In short, it's a work in progress.

The caveats were omitted from the president's original December 19 announcement that took the Pentagon by surprise prompting Mattis's exit. On January 5, Kevin Sweeney, the Defense Department chief of staff, resigned.

On Tuesday, Turkey requested that U.S. bases in Syria be cleared out and handed over to local elements, according to Reuters. Newsweek confirmed the reporting through Pentagon sources, who added that no official action has been taken on the request.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Bolton had made a "serious mistake" for trying to slow down the U.S. withdraw in a pre-scheduled speech to parliament. Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Erdoğan, told reporters Turkey will not seek permission from allies to conduct offensive operations against Syrian Kurdish fighters.

Afghanistan Is a Failed War

U.S. troops have been in Syria for just four years. They've been in Afghanistan for 17—and withdrawing from America's longest war is correspondingly more complicated.

In the short term, U.S. officials fear a complete pullout would undo the current political negotiations aimed at reconciling differences between Kabul, the Taliban and the U.S., while also reinforcing the view that America's word cannot be relied on.

But the post-9/11 wars have outlasted back-to-back two-term presidential administrations, and the majority opinion in U.S. military and veteran circles—despite recent declarations of progress—is that Afghanistan is a failed war that rolls on, racking up futile foreign policies, American lives and taxpayer dollars.

Some Afghanistan vets say they'd be glad to see the war come to a close, but many have wondered what their comrades died for—was it for nothing? It's a question that haunts. Already, those who fought early in the war have seen the Taliban retake territory for which American blood was shed.

"I agree with those who feel it's a good move [to withdraw]," says former U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Lucas Dyer, a 13-year veteran of the infantry and Afghanistan. "But the question lingers: What was it all for? I know what my part was for, and I know why my Marines died. To close a chapter on this war or any war is hard."

Former U.S. Marine Sergeant Matthew Moores, a medically retired tank commander and Afghanistan vet, tells Newsweek he blames the architects of the war, not the troops. "They were professionals who died doing their jobs. They didn't die for nothing; they died to protect and support the men and women to their left and right," says Moores. "There is nobility in that, and nothing can take it away from them. What does piss me off, though, is that those people died trusting that there was a plan better than 'I don't know, muddle around for a few years,' but there wasn't."

"Muddle" refers to comments last month from retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. He told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that his "best suggestion" was for a small number of American forces to remain in Afghanistan and "muddle along," according to leaked audio obtained by Task & Purpose, an online news website covering the U.S. military and veteran communities.

In the meantime, any change in U.S. commitment is not visible on the ground. "There is nothing going on with Afghanistan right now," says the senior Defense Department official. "I think that the administration did not anticipate all the flak from the GOP leadership regarding withdrawal."

Since the president announced the cut to Afghanistan troop strength by half—a precursor, many believe, for a complete withdrawal at some point—Graham has touted the Pentagon line that military-beat reporters began to hear months ago. "The conditions in Afghanistan—at the present moment—make American troop withdrawals a high-risk strategy," Graham wrote on Twitter. "If we continue on our present course we are setting in motion the loss of all our gains and paving the way toward a second 9/11."

A work in progress: Members of the Syrian pro-government forces inspect the damage of a street in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus on May 22, 2018. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty

Many current and former U.S. service members believe the Defense Department had found a new line to justify keeping the so-called "forever war" going, replacing talking points such as "We're turning a corner," and "We're making progress."

I first heard Graham's language in September 2018 from U.S. Marine Brigadier General Roger Turner, the former commander of Task Force Southwest in Afghanistan. "We are preventing a return to pre-9/11 conditions," Turner said. Marines who served with the one-star general in 2017 tell me that statement, on the ground, translates to, "Make a shitty situation less shitty." Turner had led the first Marine deployment back to southern Helmand province since 2014, as part of Trump's new strategy.

"The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do," Trump said when outlining his administration's policy in August 2017. "Afghans will secure and build their own nation, and define their own future. We want them to succeed."

At the time, Trump said he understood Americans' dissatisfaction: "I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money and, most importantly, lives trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations."

Trump's campaign rhetoric often focused on succeeding where his predecessors failed—asserting that he could put an end to both terrorist groups and legacy foreign-policy mistakes, quickly. Trump didn't explicitly promise to get out of Afghanistan, The Washington Post's Aaron Blake wrote, but having made a point of his opposition to the Iraq war, he did appear to be noninterventionist.

Trump has said the wars of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been a waste of money. And although his administration has used the same congressional legislation that started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to expand or revitalize armed conflicts in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq and Niger, it's hard to say he's wrong.

In August 2017, Trump seemed to understand what his predecessor, Obama, had learned when trying to end the war in Iraq: "A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11." But the following April, he struck a different note at a Michigan rally. "We have spent $7 trillion—trillion with a t—$7 trillion in the Middle East," he said, citing an inflated estimate. "You know what we have for it? Nothing. Nothing."

Endless Wars, especially those which are fought out of judgement mistakes that were made many years ago, & those where we are getting little financial or military help from the rich countries that so greatly benefit from what we are doing, will eventually come to a glorious end!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 8, 2019

Strong leadership and strategy are more important than ever, if the U.S. is to clear out. "A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave the fractious nation to the intrigues of a theocratic Iran, a rising China and especially Vladimir Putin's Russia, not to mention Pakistan and India, in yet another iteration of the 200-year-old 'Great Game' for influence in the region," Newsweek's Jeff Stein reported in September.

"Mattis leaving is a big blow," a second Defense Department official tells Newsweek. "It's becoming harder to defend Trump, even among the Trumpkins at the Pentagon. We're professionals and rolling with the punches, but the concern is that we are in chaos with Chaos gone," a reference to Mattis's military call sign.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan (2nd R) attends a Cabinet meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House January 02, 2019 in Washington, DC. A partial federal government shutdown entered its 12th day as Trump and House Democrats are at an impasse over funding for border security, including the president’s demand for $5 billion for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Shanahan and his commander in chief are facing an enormous challenge. The U.S. hasn't won a major war in 30 years—but the country has been at war, in one place or another, nearly all the time since. Soldiers never want to cut and run. But is it better to wait for victory, or simply to declare victory and come home?

Illustration by Alex Fine for Newsweek