Trump’s Tweets on Troop Withdrawals Unnerve Pentagon

The president’s demands to draw down forces in Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria seek to fulfill a campaign promise. But officials warn rapid troop reductions could bolster adversaries.

By Eric Schmitt

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s surprise tweet last week that he would pull all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Christmas is not the only important military mission he may abruptly shrink or end as Election Day nears.

Mr. Trump has told senior advisers that he also wants to see plans for withdrawing all American forces in Somalia, despite warnings from senior military and counterterrorism officials that doing so would bolster the deadly Qaeda affiliate there and cede strategic ground in East Africa to China and Russia.

The president sent mixed signals last month when he declared that American forces “are out of Syria,” except to guard the region’s oil fields. His comments came on the day the Pentagon said it was sending Bradley fighting vehicles, more fighter jet patrols and about 100 additional troops to northeast Syria after a Russian armored vehicle rammed an American ground patrol there in August, injuring seven soldiers.

“We’re in all these different sites fighting in countries that nobody ever heard of, and it hurts us because we’re — you wear out your military,” Mr. Trump said last week in an interview with Fox Business. “And we have to be always prepared for China and Russia and these other places. We have to be prepared.”

But even senior military commanders have sought to distance themselves from their commander in chief’s troop withdrawal forecasts, which have caught them off guard. And critics say that in seeking to fulfill a campaign pledge to bring American troops home from “endless wars,” the president is exposing the country to even greater national security risks.

“There’s no strategy; there’s just electioneering,” said Kori Schake, who directs foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The latest head-snapping news on possible troop withdrawals came this week, when senior administration officials said Mr. Trump had told senior aides that he wanted to withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia, confirming an earlier report by Bloomberg News and adding further details.

One idea now under consideration would involve removing most or all ground troops from the country — including those who have been training and advising Somali forces — and ending strikes aimed at combating or degrading the Shabab, Al Qaeda’s largest and most active global affiliate. Counterterrorism strikes, drone use, troop presence in nearby countries and targeting individual Shabab members believed to be plotting terrorist attacks outside Somalia would apparently still be permitted.

The White House convened a small interagency meeting of senior officials late last week to discuss Mr. Trump’s demand for more drastic troop withdrawal options, according to three officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Officials involved in the discussion included Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they said.

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