The rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria, which included U.S. forces bombing their own equipment at the bases they hastily left behind, is a vivid example of how the U.S. military is being forced to cope with national security and foreign policy decisions announced at the speed of a tweet.
Although President Donald Trump long ago telegraphed his interest in pulling out of Syria and reducing the U.S. military role in other parts of the world, the cascade of events that unfolded after his Oct. 6 conversation with Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan highlights the mounting challenges heaped on military planners and the troops they command.
The spate of sudden decisions from the White House has called into question the future of the five-year fight against Islamic State militants as well as the entire strategy that underpins the U.S. presence in the U.S. Central Command region.
It also highlights the second- and third-order effects of abrupt decisions that so far have included a high death toll of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the Turkish invasion and Iraq’s unexpected decision to prohibit U.S. forces leaving Syria to stay in neighboring Iraq. The combination of events threatens to greatly diminish, if not end altogether, the still ongoing fight against Islamic State militants in both Syria and Iraq as the coalition’s most effective indigenous partner in Syria is under fire from the coalition’s NATO ally.
And with all that taking place, NBC News reported that military planners are developing plans for a rapid drawdown in Afghanistan should Trump make a similar quick decision about the remaining 12,000 troops there.
The tumultuous events of the last 10 days threaten to wash away whatever gains have been made in the past 18 years of war in the U.S. Central Command region and that concerns some of those who once oversaw military planning there.
“There doesn’t appear to be much strategy going on at all, aside from piecemeal political decisions,” said Mike Jones, a retired Army major general who served as CENTCOM’s chief of staff.
“If there was some kind of apparent strategy, then maybe I could make some sense of it. And of course, that’s very frustrating, because what the military would love to have is some coherent policy and strategy that it could work from, rather than just discrete planning endeavors to account for whatever the latest idea is.”
After the U.S. agreed to withdraw troops from northeast Syria to get out of the way of the Turkish offensive, Pentagon officials talked about continuing the fight against ISIS by moving a good chunk of its 1,000 troops there into Iraq.
But that plan was imperiled when Iraq’s government announced that those troops were prohibited from moving to Iraq, a move that would have expanded the controversial U.S. military footprint there.
“I’ll have that discussion tomorrow with the Iraqi defense minister about the details” of their decision, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in Saudi Arabia Tuesday. “But the aim isn’t to stay in Iraq interminably. The aim is to pull our soldiers out and eventually get them back home.”
A few days earlier, the plan was to stage troops in western Iraq to fight ISIS militants in Syria from Iraq. Esper hinted that those operations could include cross-border raids by American commandos backed by U.S. airpower.
Iraq’s demand is bad news for those plans, said one former U.S. defense official.
“Since Iraq has all the authority it wants to ask us to leave, we’re more or less giving up on exerting [counterterrorism] pressure against the Islamic State in east Syria,” a former U.S. defense official told Military Times.
Asked Monday by reporters about the possibility of U.S. troops protecting oil wells in Syria, Esper said that there were already American troops by oil wells in Syria and that those forces were not in the “present phase of withdrawal.”
“The purpose of those forces — a purpose of those forces, working with the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces], is to deny access to those oil fields by ISIS and others who may benefit from revenues that could be earned,” Esper said.
Esper explained Monday that a potential option for the president could be how to deny ISIS oil revenue. Esper also said that he has made no decision on any options.
Of importance to U.S. policymakers is a plan to continue to combat ISIS militants in Syria from Iraq.
But if the Iraqi government has its way, U.S. troops withdrawing from Syria may have to exit Iraq almost immediately, complicating any U.S. plan to combat ISIS in Syria.
“Doing effective CT targeting requires proximity, both in terms of intelligence collection and striking the target. If we’re moving aircraft/ground forces away from the target area, we not only lose response time, we lose our situational understanding,” the former U.S. defense official told Military Times.
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former U.S. Army Europe commander, tweeted Tuesday that the “Iraqi military says “no permission” US says “plans are ‘fluid’.” In this situation, “fluid” isn’t a good thing.”
Esper said that the U.S. was still conducting combat air patrols to protect U.S. forces on the ground in Syria.
Another potential problem is the new rules for U.S. air power imposed by Iraq. U.S. and coalition troops fighting the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq must now get flights approved daily, following an Aug. 15 order from Iraq’s prime minister that all use of Iraqi airspace would have to be pre-approved or else be considered hostile.
A spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve told Military Times at the time that emergency flights receive blanket approval.
But Iraqi leadership now reviews a daily air tasking order with more detailed information about the types of missions, aircraft and operating areas for each flight, said the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.
Those include pre-planned strike, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, resupply and transit flights inside restricted zones.
“The process we have in place does not increase the risk of compromise for our operations,” OIR spokesman Army Col. Myles Caggins III told Military Times at the time. However, officials from the Pentagon, Operation Inherent Resolve and CENTCOM did not immediately respond Tuesday to questions about how those rules would effect any future action against ISIS in Syria launched from Iraq.
National security experts and U.S. officials have criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, warning that the American power vacuum would breathe new life into ISIS that has recently been relegated to remote rural areas of the desert.
Trump ordered the departure of U.S. forces from Syria following Turkey’s launch of military operations to combat the U.S.-backed Kurdish allies who aided the American-led coalition in its fighter to clear northern Syria of the Islamic State. Turkey believes the YPG — a Kurdish militia that falls under the SDF — is a terrorist group.
American officials have urged Turkey to secure the thousands of ISIS prisoners holed up in makeshift SDF prisons in Syria.
Analysts have argued that Turkey does not have the will nor interest to follow through on those concerns expressed by the Pentagon and White House.
“The Turks, Syrians, Iraqis, and Russians won’t do it as capably, even if they wanted to do so, so we’re assuming extraordinary strategic risk here,” the former U.S. defense official said regarding the Syria anti-ISIS fight. “Beyond abandoning the Kurds, we’re giving IS [the Islamic State] the space to reconstitute and eventually conduct external operations again.”
Moreover, a potential decision by Trump to keep U.S. forces in Syria to guard oil wells could draw American forces into the broader conflict his administration had hoped to avoid.
Those oil fields were the scene of a deadly exchange between U.S. forces and Russian mercenaries in February 2018. American troops embedded with their SDF partners had to call in air support to counter an attack by Russian mercenaries and pro-Syrian regime forces in Deir ez-Zor province, Syria. Nearly 200 enemy fighters were killed in the fight.
Jennifer Cafarella, the research director for the Institute for the Study of War, told Military Times that she does not believe the U.S. will keep troops guarding oil wells in Syria. But, “retaining a presence in Deir ez-Zour may help keep the SDF together and thereby mitigate the ISIS resurgence,” she said.
Afghanistan, stay or go
A report from NBC News on Monday said the Pentagon recently began drawing up plans for an abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in case Trump surprises military leaders by ordering an immediate drawdown there as he did in Syria, according to three current and former defense officials. Military Times could not independently verify that, but the Pentagon on Tuesday told Military Times that the White House hasn’t given any orders to kick off a drawdown out of Afghanistan.
Such plans, however, are routinely considered by CENTCOM planners, said Jones, the former chief of staff.
“It may have nothing to do with the wisdom of whether one should withdraw, but certainly, folks are doing plans like that all the time,” said Jones, who retired from the Army in 2011 and is now a consultant in Alexandria, Virginia.
A withdrawal plan from Afghanistan would involve removing U.S. equipment, bringing some home, while transferring some to local partners, or — in some cases — destroying it.
“How to dispose of things, as well as the mechanics of scheduling aircraft, shipments of stuff, road convoys to move things and all that,” he said. “Obviously, you don’t prefer to have to destroy all your equipment because you can’t physically get it out based on the timeline that’s necessary.”
Reports out of northern Syria last week had the U.S. setting ablaze some vehicles while dropping bombs on other equipment, a necessity with the short few days special operations troops were given to evacuate after it became clear Turkey would invade. They destroyed the equipment rather than let it fall into the hands of unfriendly forces.
“There are times when destruction of something is a better option than trying to ship it out,” Jones said. “The key is making sure you make those choices deliberately and on a sound basis, rather than being forced into it.”
On Monday, the New York Times reported that the U.S. has already quietly withdrawn about 2,000 troops from Afghanistan. That news came days after Esper told reporters traveling with him to Afghanistan that a withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be “conditions based.” However, he said the U.S. believes only 8,600 troops are necessary to keep up current counter-terrorism operations.
Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a defense department spokesperson, told Military Times that there are currently about 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“While the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan fluctuates regularly due to troop rotations and conditions on the ground, there have been no changes to DoD’s mission or to our commitment to our security partnership with the Government of Afghanistan,” Campbell said.
The other key component of an Afghanistan exit is, of course, the massive investment U.S. troops have made in training Afghanistan’s security forces.
Of the five regional train-advise-assist commands, the U.S. is responsible for two. Turkey, Germany and Italy are taking the lead in the others.
“Right now, it’s our judgment that the Afghans need support to deal with the level of violence today,” Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, told reporters Aug. 28 in a Pentagon briefing. “If an agreement happens, that could change.”
President Trump in September axed the conditions-based withdrawal agreement with the Taliban that U.S. diplomats had been working on all year.
Afghan officials, who were not included in the multiple meetings held between the U.S. and the Taliban in Qatar throughout most of 2019, had expressed concern about the U.S. pulling out and leaving them to fight the Taliban alone.
“Frankly, I don’t know how you do that. You can spin it any way you want, but at the end of the day … any time you just say, ‘Our goal is no longer your success, our goal is to leave’ — I don’t think there’s any way to tell somebody that that doesn’t cause them to be unhappy and bitter,” Jones said.
According to a June report from the Pentagon, Afghan national force are making progress in their ability to fight insurgents on their own, but are still far from being totally independent.
They are at the mercy of political decisions, Jones said. It’s possible to speed up their progress, but it’s a huge commitment.
“You can accelerate the rate at which you increase someone’s capability,” he said. “But in order to do that, it requires a much higher level of commitment than the United States has been willing to make. We have done it at the pace of the resources that were available, and not at the pace of what could be done.”
One former military official with knowledge of the region said that a hasty withdrawal would be disastrous for the current Afghan government and greatly reduce the U.S. ability to influence events in the region.
The former official added that maintaining a presence at Bagram Air Base is essential for any future fight against Iran.
“Bagram is an enormous military hammer on the other side of Iran,” said the former official. “They can’t react to both sides. The strike time from Bagram is very short if we have to do something.”
Campbell said the Pentagon has not received any orders to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan and future reductions would be “conditions-based.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.