A seemingly simple order from the commander in chief is often anything but.
Nearly a full year after President Trump first said he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria and two months after he doubled down on that directive, Pentagon officials last week announced that they had restarted combat missions against the Islamic State group and “reset” inside the country with hundreds of American troops on the ground.
On Thanksgiving, Mr. Trump visited Afghanistan and suggested that the U.S. military is willing to stay until it achieves “total victory,” casting doubt on his oft-repeated campaign promise to end the longest conflict in American history.
It took numerous tweets and direct orders, along with the resignation of the Navy secretary, to force the service to drop a punitive legal process against a Navy SEAL whom Mr. Trump had fully pardoned.
In recent campaign rallies, the president has included the Pentagon leadership and a group he once referred to as “my generals” as part of the shadowy “deep state” forces determined to defy his authority.
On the surface, the actions would seem to fly directly in the face of the president’s clear call nearly a year ago for the U.S. to end its involvement in Syria and bring all of its troops home. But analysts say the situation is perhaps the best example of how military officials seem to slow-walk Mr. Trump’s orders with the expectation that the commander in chief ultimately will change his mind after pleas from hawkish Republican allies, Pentagon leaders, international partners, influential conservative media figures or a combination of all four.
About 600 American forces remain inside Syria, military officials said, down from 2,000 earlier this year. Some are carrying out the president’s most recent order to protect Syrian oil fields from falling under the control of ISIS, but the Pentagon has deliberately repositioned other troops to resume combat operations against Islamic State militants.
Adding oil field protection means the U.S. mission in Syria has broadened despite the president’s clear desire for full withdrawal.
“We didn’t leave. We just … moved somewhere else [in Syria], and now we’re conducting the same missions,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, senior fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank in Washington. “You’ve expanded the mission set.”
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s clear goal of cutting the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 has moved slowly, and the U.S. still has roughly 13,000 troops on the ground. The president announced on Thanksgiving that his administration would seek to restart peace talks with the Taliban, but he also suggested that he is willing to keep troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.
“The Taliban wants to make a deal. We’ll see if they make a deal. If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t. That’s fine,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re going to stay until such time as we have a deal or we have total victory, and they want to make a deal very badly.”
Mr. Trump stressed that he still wants to greatly reduce the number of forces inside Afghanistan. But that, too, has proved difficult in the face of strong resistance on Capitol Hill and inside the Pentagon.
Keeping the mission alive
Foreign policy analysts and insiders say Mr. Trump’s unambiguous orders on Syria and Afghanistan often don’t make it off the tarmac. Allies seem to talk him out of a quick, full withdrawal or convince him that it’s necessary to leave behind a small American force.
In the case of Syria, that small American force continues the same mission that the president sought to end.
“The strategy most Trump aides take is to keep U.S. presence and missions out of the headlines and out of the daily briefs Trump receives. Basically, it’s the national security equivalent of, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’” said former Defense Department official Michael Rubin. “National security professionals within government know that the president likes to break the china and defy conventional wisdom when confronted with it, but doesn’t have the attention span to dig deep into the issues or the desire to consider second- or third-order effects.
“We still have troops in Syria and Afghanistan, and even more in other areas of operation, but so long as the president doesn’t read about it or see it on the cable news headlines, then the Pentagon and the intelligence community believe they can conduct necessary operations,” said Mr. Rubin, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
White House officials dispute that characterization and stress that the president remains informed on all details of U.S. military activity abroad.
The Pentagon hasn’t kept its revitalized mission in Syria a secret. Last week, Army Lt. Gen. Robert White, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, held a news conference to stress that the U.S. is continuing to keep the pressure on the Islamic State.
At the same time, a senior Inherent Resolve official said the U.S. troop presence is preventing the group from reorganizing in the wake of the death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed during an American raid on his Syrian compound last month.
“We’re not seeing a huge groundswell of support for them amongst the population. Nor are we seeing them being able to gather the momentum that they particularly would like to,” a senior official said.
The U.S. is still fighting the Islamic State in Syria after the president announced last December that the battle had been won and that all troops would come home.
Mr. Trump made the unexpected announcement without consulting key U.S. allies, and it led to the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis. Mr. Trump later adjusted course and abandoned plans for a full withdrawal.
In October, the president reasserted his withdrawal order amid a looming Turkish invasion of Syria. U.S. forces quickly vacated the area, and it seemed as if the American involvement in on-the-ground fighting would end. But once again, the president’s directive has not come to fruition.
Should Mr. Trump find a way to achieve his goals, some analysts say, he would reap political rewards from voters who were drawn to his pledge to stop “endless wars” in the Middle East.
“He could make some real hay with that heading in” to the 2020 election, Col. Davis said. “But the problem is there are other constituencies who have a great deal of influence … who don’t want that.
“I fear he may just let the status quo continue,” he added. “It’s easier to not take action and continue to talk about it.”
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