Monday, November 16, 2020


President Trump has been roundly criticized for his firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other top DoD officials, during what almost all see as his final weeks in office.

The virtually certain election of Joe Biden means that a new Defense secretary will be nominated, along with a host of other senior Defense officials who will take over the Pentagon soon, and Mr. Trump’s appointment of Christopher Miller as acting secretary and others will never be sent forward to the Senate for confirmation or that the current officials remain in office for more than a few months.

There is no argument that as president Mr. Trump has the lawful authority to fire and hire political appointees — at Defense or elsewhere in the federal government. Why then did he elect to exercise this power in his final weeks in office? Some speculate that it is part of some various last-ditch initiatives or operations, whether overt or covert, that Mr. Trump and some around him at the National Security Council might want to undertake that cannot be undone by the incoming Biden-Harris team.

A somewhat different explanation can be seen in the fact that Mr. Esper, along with top aides in the policy sphere and top military, elected to ignore earlier orders they had been given by the commander in chief, particularly with respect to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

One of the hallmarks of the Trump 2020 election campaign was the phrase “promises made, promises kept” and at every stop in the campaign he listed an impressive list of accomplishments during his term as president. Completing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 19 years of war remained to be done.  

As argued previously on these pages, there may have been a failure in high-level communication, but clearly that is not the case. It became increasingly clear to Mr. Trump and his top aides that Mr. Esper and others at the Pentagon responsible for executing the plan Mr. Trump demanded were largely ignoring him and watching the election clock count down, with the expectation that they could slow-roll Mr. Trump until he may become a “lame duck” and then make their case for putting off the withdrawal to the incoming Biden–Harris administration.

In the immediate aftermath of the election it appeared that this strategy had worked. Even though Mr. Esper and the others knew they would be gone in January, they also knew that Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley and top military, who are not political appointees, would remain to implement their strategy.

The reluctance of Gen. Milley and other senior military to depart Afghanistan “abruptly” as they still argue, comes from the fact that they have served there over some two decades in a war that has covered much of their military careers — and are reluctant to face the reality that this has been a largely useless enterprise. Since the outset of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2001 they have relied on false narratives, misleading statistics and failed arguments as to why a continued U.S. presence there is needed.

Here Gen. Milley has not been silent on the topic, and during a recent radio interview on NPR seemed unaware of what President Trump, his boss, has repeatedly stated on this subject and presented the commander in chief with a plan to meet these specific objectives on the timing for removal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Presumably, he thought he could ignore or slow-roll the president until a new one took office. Until this week it seemed as though he guessed right.

Neither Mr. Esper, his top aides nor Gen. Milley read the president correctly on this. A hallmark of the Trump administration has been the removal of U.S. military forces from foreign wars where the nation has no serious strategic interest, and has made remaining forces from Afghanistan a key focus. He has been serious about this from the outset. Unfortunately, he was dealing with not only a resistant Pentagon civilian leadership but military leaders who were unable to deal with either the political or military reality of the situation, and their own bias built on two decades of failed policy.

In hindsight, it is clear that Mr. Trump should have fired Mr. Esper and other others far earlier, and it would not have been a good idea to fire them in the midst of the presidential campaign. Post-election, Mr. Trump had little choice but to change the top Pentagon leadership as quickly as possible in the hope that he could realize what he considered a key policy objective in the weeks remaining.

Will this last-ditch effort by Mr. Trump work? It’s hard to say, but there are some serious hurdles in the way. For his part Mr. Trump still lacks a good understanding of how the massive Pentagon bureaucracy and military establishment really work. 

Acting Secretary Miller, Kash Patel, and others from the NSC sent over to temporarily fill the key posts are intelligent and well-intentioned, but none have top-level Pentagon management experience. Even their best efforts can be impeded by a huge bureaucracy beneath them that may want to block a change in policy.

President Trump has repeatedly stated that he wanted the U.S. troops out of Afghanistan “by Christmas” — a date which is almost upon us. At this point his best hope of accomplishing anything close to this would be to hold a “come to Jesus” meeting in the Oval Office with Mr. Miller, Gen. Milley and other top aides where he gives them a point-blank order to execute an ops plan that gets the troops on planes out now, or hand in their resignations. He is still the commander in chief — at least for the next 10 weeks.

Failing that, it may in fact be too little, too late. The changes at DoD will turn out to be cosmetic, at best, and the establishment will be able to run out the clock on the Trump administration and take their chances on selling the new team on extending U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond two decades of failed policy.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is the author most recently of “Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.”

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