Trump finally hews to ritual of meeting troops in harm’s way
By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
Thursday, December 27
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Maryland (AP) — President Donald Trump once opined that it wasn’t “overly necessary” for him to visit troops in danger zones abroad. But with the lights of Air Force One out and window shutters drawn, the president did just that, slipping into Iraq at night to greet U.S. service members and show that his norm-busting presidency would hew at least to this tradition.
Trump arrived back in Washington in the pre-dawn hours Thursday, capping a 29-hour and six-minute trip to the conflict region conducted under the cover of night.
Addressing troops at an air base in western Iraq late Wednesday, Trump defended his decision to pull forces from neighboring Syria, declaring of Islamic State militants: “We’ve knocked them out. We’ve knocked them silly.”
His appraisal is at odds with that of military officials, aides and allies who consider IS a diminished but deadly force. His defense secretary and envoy to the anti-IS coalition quit after Trump blindsided much of the national security establishment with his call.
Trump had faced criticism for not yet visiting U.S. troops stationed in harm’s way as he comes up on his two-year mark in office. George W. Bush made four trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan as president; President Barack Obama made four to Afghanistan and one to Iraq.
Such trips are typically unannounced and the subject of extreme security. Trump’s was no exception as he flew overnight from Washington, spent three-plus hours on the ground and stopped on the way back at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany for refueling and to greet service members in a hangar.
Trump told his audience in Iraq that the decision to withdraw the roughly 2,000 troops from Syria illustrated his quest to put “America first.”
“We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” Trump said at al-Asad Air Base, about 100 miles or 60 kilometers west of Baghdad. “We’re respected again as a nation.”
He did not meet Iraqi officials while there but spoke on the phone with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. The visit appeared to inflame sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq as the two major blocs in the Iraqi parliament condemned the trip, likening it to a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
The air base where Trump spoke is about 155 miles (250 kilometers) from Hajin, a Syrian town near the Iraqi border where Kurdish fighters are still battling IS extremists. Trump has said IS militants have been eradicated, but they still hold a patch of territory in that region of Syria, although fighters also have fled the area and are in hiding in other pockets of the country.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was supposed to continue leading the Pentagon until late February, but Trump moved up his exit and announced that Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, would take the job on Jan. 1. Trump said he was in “no rush” to nominate a new defense chief.
“Everybody and his uncle wants that position,” Trump told reporters traveling with him. “And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt, just so I won’t be criticized.”
Critics said the U.S. exit from Syria, the latest in Trump’s increasingly isolationist-style foreign policy, would provide an opening for IS to regroup, give Iran a green light to expand its influence in the region and leave U.S.-backed Kurdish forces vulnerable to attacks from Turkey.
“I made it clear from the beginning that our mission in Syria was to strip ISIS of its military strongholds,” said Trump, who wore an olive green bomber-style jacket as chants of “USA! USA!” greeted him and speakers blared Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA.”
“We’ll be watching ISIS very closely,” said Trump, who was joined by first lady Melania Trump, but no members of his Cabinet or lawmakers. “We’ll be watching them very, very closely, the remnants of ISIS.”
Trump also said he had no plans to withdraw the 5,200 U.S. forces in Iraq. That’s down from about 170,000 in 2007 at the height of the surge of U.S. forces to combat sectarian violence unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.
Abdul-Mahdi’s office said “differences in points of view over the arrangements” prevented the two from meeting but they discussed security issues and Trump’s order to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the phone. Abdul-Mahdi’s office also did not say whether he had accepted an invitation to the White House. But Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on the flight back that the Iraqi leader had agreed to come.
Trump said that after U.S. troops in Syria return home, Iraq could still be used to stage attacks on IS militants.
“We can use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria,” he said. “If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard” that they “really won’t know what the hell happened.”
He promised a “strong, deliberate and orderly withdrawal” of forces from Syria.
Trump had told The Associated Press in October that he would visit U.S. troops in troubled areas “at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary.” He told reporters that he had planned to make the trip three or four weeks ago, but word started getting out and forced him to postpone it.
Iraqi leaders declared an end to combat operations against IS a year ago, but the country’s political, military and economic situation remains uncertain. It continues to experience sporadic bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, which most people attribute to IS.
On Dec. 15, the U.S.-led coalition launched an airstrike in support of Iraqi troops who were chasing IS fighters toward a tunnel west of Mosul. The strike destroyed the tunnel entrance and killed four IS fighters, according to the U.S. military in Baghdad. The last U.S. service member to die in Iraq was in August, as the result of a helicopter crash in Sinjar.
Trump had planned to spend Christmas at his private club in Florida, but stayed behind in Washington due to the partial government shutdown.
Trump campaigned for office on a platform of ending U.S. involvement in foreign trouble spots, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon is also said to be developing plans to withdraw up to half of the 14,000 American troops still serving in Afghanistan.
Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Philip Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report.
Follow Darlene Superville on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap
Mattis outlines strategic hazards facing next Pentagon chief
By LOLITA C. BALDOR and ROBERT BURNS
Saturday, December 22
WASHINGTON (AP) — The extraordinary resignation letter that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis handed to a surprised President Donald Trump was not just a product of two years of accumulating frustration with an impulsive boss, but an outline of the strategic hazards facing the next Pentagon chief.
Mattis, who was quietly back at work Friday while stunned Pentagon staff soldiered on around him, implicitly warned in his letter to the president of the threat to the U.S. from allowing alliances to fray and of the risk that disrespecting allies will undermine U.S. credibility.
It was an outline of the challenges facing the nation and whoever takes over as defense secretary when Mattis leaves Feb. 28.
“As this Administration continues to implode, Secretary Mattis’ extraordinary resignation is a significant loss and a real indication that President Trump’s foreign policy agenda has failed and continues to spiral into chaos,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Mattis announced on Thursday his plan to resign, a move prompted by the decision by the president to pull all of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops from the fight against the Islamic State group in northeastern Syria.
Mattis also was dismayed by plans under consideration to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and, as his letter made clear, did not see eye to eye with a president who has expressed disdain for NATO and doubts about keeping troops in Asia.
The person nominated to succeed Mattis will face a Senate likely to probe for evidence of new strategic direction in hotspots like Syria, Afghanistan and the Korean peninsula.
In making clear that he could no longer tolerate Trump’s approach to American foreign policy, Mattis appeared to fashion a resignation letter that not only expressed his reasons for leaving but also sounded an alarm. He implicitly criticized the president’s unwillingness to stand up to Russia or take a stronger stance against Chinese assertiveness.
“I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” Mattis wrote. “It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritative model … to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.”
Nurturing and extending U.S. alliances was a pillar of Mattis’ approach to his job, which means he was at odds with Trump on that score from the earliest months of his tenure.
“While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” Mattis wrote.
William Cohen, a former defense secretary and long-time friend of Mattis, put a finer point on this Mattis assertion by saying in response to his resignation, “He cannot be expected to stand behind a president who disrespects our allies and ingratiates himself to our adversaries.”
In addition to the frayed state of U.S. relations with NATO, Mattis’ successor also is likely to face other hazards hinted at in his resignation letter. These include preserving and rationalizing a strategy for ensuring a lasting defeat of the Islamic State group by the dozens of nations that had backed the U.S. after it entered Syria in 2014.
German officials expressed polite irritation that Washington had not consulted them on the Trump decision to pull out of Syria.
“As an ally and member of the anti-IS coalition we would have considered prior consultation by the U.S. government about the withdrawal of U.S. troops helpful,” government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said.
The Pentagon was still reeling Friday from the news that Mattis was leaving.
Inside what is normally a very orderly building, military members who are trained to take orders, salute and move ahead were stunned and a bit shaken.
Military missions in Syria and Afghanistan that just a week ago seemed clear and mapped out, were now thrown into chaos. Deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, planners scrambled to pull together a troop withdrawal strategy for Syria that the White House would accept, all while knowing that their boss a few floors above them quit over that order.
Mattis, 68, is the first Pentagon chief to resign in protest over a president’s foreign policy in many decades. In fact, there may be no historical equivalent to the circumstances of Mattis’ departure. The last defense secretary to resign was Chuck Hagel in November 2014, and although he had expressed differences with President Barack Obama over Syria policy, Hagel was essentially pushed out by an administration that viewed him as ineffective.
Robert McNamara, who served as defense secretary for seven years over two Democratic administrations, left the Pentagon in February 1968, three months after President Lyndon Johnson announced McNamara was resigning to become president of the World Bank. McNamara differed with Johnson and the military over Vietnam war policy amid an escalating anti-war movement, but his departure was not an explicit rejection of Johnson’s policies.
Road to Ruin: Trump’s Middle East Retreat
By Mel Gurtov
The flight of the generals is now complete with the resignation of General James Mattis—the last of the four generals to depart, and the last to give up the naïve belief he could bring sanity and order to the White House. Mattis refused Trump’s request to endorse the Syria withdrawal. His resignation letter shows, however, that more than Syria prompted it: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” he wrote.
Some outcomes of the force withdrawals are fairly predictable. Turkey will be free to attack US Kurdish allies. Bashar al-Assad will have further opportunity to brutally impose his will over resistance forces, with Iran’s and Russia’s help and without fear of US counteraction. Israel and Saudi Arabia may now have license to intervene in Syria or further squeeze Iran, widening the zone of contest. US partners farther afield will have further evidence that Trump cannot be trusted to act rationally—in fact, cannot be trusted, period.
Trump will crow that he has kept his promise, saved a bundle of money, and brought the boys home in keeping with “America First.” (“We’re rebuilding other countries while weakening our own,” he said in the first major foreign-policy speech of his 2016 campaign.) But his rationale may not go over well with Republicans in Congress who are already smarting over Trump’s kowtowing to the Saudis in the Khashoggi affair and now are saying he has made a major error (Rubio) and acted dishonorably (Graham). Trump has overplayed his hand, not so much because of the withdrawal of US forces as because he has once again revealed how ego, arrogance, and impulsiveness drive his decision making. There was no process behind his decision, no consulting with his top national security advisers or anyone else, no weighing of consequences, no exit strategy.
Trump’s withdrawal decisions put Democrats in a difficult position. Progressives might well applaud the idea of force withdrawal from losing efforts even while criticizing the lack of a strategic rationale for doing so. Their problem is offering a credible alternative to inevitable accusations that they favor “cut and run.” Establishment Democrats are more likely to condemn the withdrawals outright, arguing that they are a gift to the Russians and an affront to allies, including Israel. Their problem is backing endless war—Obama’s dilemma. Both groups will have to decide how to handle the Mattis resignation. After all, he was no dove; to the contrary, as his letter indicated, he wanted the administration to focus on getting tough with China and Russia, the chief US adversaries, while sustaining war-making in Syria and Afghanistan. Hardly a position that liberals or progressives should stand behind.
There are no winners, here or abroad, in Trump’s decision. But there are important losers: innocent lives and prospects for peace. However remote a political settlement in Syria and Afghanistan might have been before, it is even more remote now. With the US largely out of the picture, incentives for adversaries—Syria and Russia in Syria, the Taliban in Afghanistan—to negotiate war-ending or at least violence-reduction agreements are now gone. Civil war is likely to gain intensity. Civilian casualties and refugee numbers will rise substantially. A new regional war is possible. The defeat of peace should be the focus of critics’ concern.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.
Afghanistan postpones presidential election
By AMIR SHAH
Wednesday, December 26
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s presidential election, initially scheduled for April, will be postponed for several months to allow time to fix technical problems that surfaced during October’s parliamentary elections, officials said Wednesday.
More time is needed to verify voter lists and train staff on a biometric identification system designed to reduce fraud, said Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, deputy spokesman for the Independent Election Commission.
Parliamentary elections were fraught with delays after the few staff trained on the biometric system did not show up at the polling booths and countless registered voters could not find their names on voter lists. Polling had to continue for a second day after hundreds of polling stations opened several hours late. Several legal complaints have been filed to challenge the results.
No new date for the presidential election has yet been set.
The last presidential election, held in 2014, was mired in controversy and widespread allegations of fraud.
The two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, fought a tight race that went to a second vote. But before the results of the runoff could be announced, Abdullah alleged massive vote fraud and warned of widespread protests. John Kerry, the then U.S. secretary of state, interceded and helped cobble together a unity government and convinced the election commission to hold off on announcing the results of the runoff, which Ghani seemed poised to win.
Ghani was named president and Abdullah was given a newly created title of Chief Executive. The arrangement was intended to last only two years but has continued up to the present, resulting in a government marked by deep divisions that has struggled to combat a resurgent Taliban.
The postponement of the election could give more time for U.S. efforts to end the 17-year war. U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has crisscrossed the region several times since his appointment in September, reportedly meeting with the Taliban on several occasions.
Khalilzad has said he would like to see the Taliban and the Afghan government devise a “roadmap” before the April vote. Both sides have said that was an unrealistic deadline.
Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed.
Analysis: Trump, Republicans flirting with a political split
By ZEKE MILLER
Saturday, December 22
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s relationship with the Republican Party, always a marriage of convenience, is showing signs of serious strain.
The president threatened his bond with virtually every GOP constituency this past week.
His move to withdraw troops from Syria led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and left Washington’s Republican foreign policy establishment aghast, drawing unusual criticism from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., normally a Trump ally.
Trump’s initial openness to a government funding bill that didn’t include money for his much-heralded border wall with Mexico infuriated conservatives, including the talk radio and cable television personalities who often shower the president with praise. By pushing the government into a partial shutdown with no clear strategy out, Trump frustrated the rest of his party, which was hoping for a holiday break from Trump-driven dramas.
The divergent plotlines had a common theme: Trump’s rejection of his party’s counsel as he looks once again to rely on his own instincts to guide his political future.
The whirlwind week seemed to foreshadow what probably will be a rocky two years ahead as Trump, a businessman-turned-politician, gears up for re-election by putting his political interests ahead of those of his adoptive party. Trump is ending the year with his political vulnerabilities exposed, unwilling or unable to forge consensus and catering to a narrow base that he hopes will recreate his improbable 2016 election victory.
“This is tyranny of talk radio hosts,” said retiring Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican and frequent Trump critic who skipped a White House meeting Friday on the spending impasse. “You have two talk radio hosts who completely flipped a president.”
In an attempt to shift blame for the shutdown, the outsider president who ran on a slogan of “drain the swamp” embraced the tactic employed of so many of his predecessors: positioning himself in contrast to the far-less-favorably viewed Congress. He vented publicly and privately at lawmakers for failing to get him the border wall money even as they noted he barely registered an opinion on the legislation until the 11th hour.
“I think he had thought he would be able to accept this,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. “But I think once he saw the reaction from the base, it strengthened his resolve to move forward. Unfortunately that puts us in this position we’ve got right now.”
Trump’s decision to withdrawal American forces from Syria and his contemplated drawdown in Afghanistan should hardly come as a surprise to Republicans who saw him promise those moves during the campaign. Still, that doesn’t lessen the sting.
Trump’s isolationist foreign policy broke with decades of mainstream GOP thinking, and the departure of Mattis and a U.S. envoy to the global coalition fighting the Islamic State proved that Trump’s instincts are now the guiding ideology of his administration.
Though some in the GOP can barely contain their anger with the president, Republicans are hardly defecting from Trump, who is still wildly popular with primary voters. To that point, Republicans in the House rallied Thursday to pass a bill that included money for the border wall.
Amid persistent speculation that another Republican may try to challenge Trump in 2020, the party is considering ways to protect him.
Some Republicans in New Hampshire, for example, pressed for a rules change that would drop the state party’s traditional neutrality in primaries. GOP leaders in South Carolina have debated scrapping their primary altogether, which would deny a challenger the chance to collect early delegates who would otherwise go to Trump.
The president is taking a gamble with his go-it-alone approach.
He risks damaging relationships with Republicans in Congress days before Democrats are set to regain control of the House and are poised to pursue multiple investigations into Trump’s personal and professional conduct. Trump’s ties with GOP lawmakers will be especially important if Democrats pursue impeachment.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s not clear his moves will resonate with voters, especially the suburban women who turned out in droves in the November midterm elections to back Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll this month found that 62 percent of registered voters overall said they were opposed to shutting down the government over differences on funding the border wall, though 59 percent of Republicans said they were in favor.
According to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of more than 115,000 midterm voters conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago, more midterm voters opposed building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border than favored it, 53 percent to 47 percent.
Overall, 82 percent of Republican voters expressed support for the wall, while nearly as many Democrats, 86 percent, said they were opposed. Also, nearly 6 in 10 independents (59 percent) also expressed opposition.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Associated Press writer Zeke Miller has covered the White House for the AP since 2017. Follow him at http://twitter.com/zekejmiller