When it comes to U.S. troop deployments in the Middle East, last month was needlessly complicated. Donald Trump got the ball rolling with a tweet suggesting he intended to withdraw completely from the war in Afghanistan "by Christmas." Around the same time, the White House said the president's timeline wasn't real.
So, what's the outgoing administration's actual policy? That answer is now coming into sharper focus.
National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien confirmed on Friday that President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to draw down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to about 2,500 in early 2021, as NBC News was first to report on Wednesday. Speaking via Zoom at the Aspen Institute Friday morning, O'Brien said the president has set a timeline for troop withdrawal and in the early part of next year the U.S. will be down to 2,500.
O'Brien added that this withdrawal timeline is more than mere "speculation."
There's ample room for debate as to why Trump is so eager to do this before exiting the White House, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg issued a less-than-subtle statement this morning, warning of the possible dangers associated with "leaving [Afghanistan] too soon or in an uncoordinated way."
Stoltenberg is not the only one with concerns. Roll Call reported yesterday:
Amid indications President Donald Trump will move to slash the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq before he leaves office, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked the idea in a blistering Senate floor speech Monday. McConnell has been almost unfailingly loyal to Trump, but the Kentucky Republican has openly pushed back when he has seen Trump's actions as possibly threatening U.S. security.
There was similar rhetoric from a variety of other GOP senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), a member of the Armed Services Committee.
To be sure, this is a debate with several moving parts, each of which are important. The effects of withdrawal are worth considering in detail; Trump's motivations are opaque; it puts the recent personnel shake-up at the Defense Department in a new light; etc.
But Mother Jones' Kevin Drum touched on a political angle that shouldn't get lost in the shuffle: "Let me get this straight: If Donald Trump orders a reduction of 2,500 troops from Afghanistan, McConnell is willing to publicly blast Trump in no uncertain terms as a threat to the security of the nation. But if Donald Trump loudly undermines the foundations of democracy by refusing to admit defeat in a presidential election, McConnell remains silent."
Quite right. This is where McConnell and Senate Republicans draw the line? They'll applaud the outgoing president's every move, even as Trump launches an unprecedented attack on our democracy itself, but troop drawdowns are a bridge too far?