President Donald Trump caused a political furor when he announced in December that he would quickly withdraw all 2,000 American troops in Syria, together with half of the 14,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Democrats (and many Republicans) condemned the exit strategy as a boon for America’s enemies. Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned in protest, as did the special envoy for the counter-ISIS campaign, Brett McGurk, and the Pentagon chief of staff, Kevin Sweeney. Other prominent voices praised the drawdown. In The New York Times, for example, Robert Kaplan called the campaign in Afghanistan “a vestigial limb of empire, and it is time to let it go.” These critics and defenders of Trump’s decision have one thing in common: They share the assumption that Washington is actually getting out of Syria and Afghanistan.
But that’s not true.
In conventional campaigns against foreign countries, such as World War II, war and peace are clearly defined. The United States gears up for the fight and battles the enemy, there’s a surrender ceremony, and then the troops come home and Americans close the book. But in the modern era of complex civil wars and counterterrorism operations, a world power like the United States never really leaves.
First of all, the withdrawal process in Syria and Afghanistan will happen much more slowly than Trump initially claimed. Shortly after his shock announcement, the president offered significant caveats. On December 23, he tweeted that he and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had discussed “the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area.” On Sunday, Trump told reporters, “I never said we’re doing it that quickly.”
The administration has added conditions for a departure from Syria that include defeating the last ISIS holdouts—“We won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone,” Trump said—and protecting U.S. allies such as the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. National-Security Adviser John Bolton claimed that “the timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement.” If the administration applies these benchmarks strictly, then even the beginning of the end in Syria recedes into the Levant horizon. ISIS, or its successor groups, will never be “gone.” ISIS militants can always abandon the physical caliphate and go underground, rebranding themselves as insurgents or terrorists. As for the Syrian Kurds, they will require protection indefinitely. They are threatened by two powerful enemies: Turkey, which considers Kurdish forces to essentially be terrorists, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime. If the conditions for a U.S. exit extend to checking Iranian influence in Syria or defending Israel, then withdrawal becomes even more fanciful. Tehran saved Assad’s regime at a cost of billions of dollars and is not about to leave.
On Monday, Trump claimed that he and his advisers were singing from the same hymnbook. “No different from my original statements, we will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” he tweeted. Of course, taking prudent and necessary steps means slowing the pace of leaving.
Even if Trump fudges these benchmarks, or abandons them entirely, it’s exceedingly difficult to physically bring troops home. The process of leaving is known as “retrograde,” and is a logistical nightmare. The military has to box up and ship out a “Little America” of bases, Humvees, air conditioners, and even fast-food joints. Every gun and every bullet needs to be packed away, given to allies, or destroyed, to make sure they don’t fall into enemy hands. Removing one brigade of 2,000 to 5,000 soldiers from a combat zone can take weeks or months. A larger footprint can mean months or years. In Syria and Afghanistan, U.S. forces have to leave through forbidding terrain in an active war zone, without a nearby port.
The kicker is that even if American troops do come home in a reasonably timely fashion, they will likely return before long. Recent U.S. campaigns in the Middle East have operated like a revolving door. In a globalized world, what happens in the Middle East affects U.S. interests and values. Recent presidents were all loathe to engage in prolonged conflicts in the region, but they were even less willing to—as they saw it—risk American security or lose a war.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush was eager to avoid nation building and pursued an exit strategy known as “leave to win” based on training Iraqi security forces and reducing U.S. troop levels as speedily as possible. When violence worsened, however, Bush ordered tens of thousands of reinforcements to Iraq as part of the “surge” strategy.
President Barack Obama removed U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2011 but sent troops back in 2014 to combat ISIS. In an interview with Obama, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg quoted an Al Pacino line from The Godfather: Part III: “Just when I thought I was out—” Before Goldberg could finish, Obama completed the quote: “—it pulls you back in.” War, like organized crime, has a magnetic draw.
Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan but kept in place a successor force of about 10,000. In 2017, after the Taliban made military gains, Trump agreed to send 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to around 14,000. By removing 7,000 soldiers, Trump is half exiting from a war the United States already supposedly exited.
Given this history, it’s easy to imagine how the fight against a rebooted ISIS or a strengthened Taliban will lead U.S. forces once more unto the breach. Is Trump willing to see the Taliban recapture Kabul, with people escaping from rooftops by helicopter?
And in the unlikely scenario in which American forces are permanently removed from Syria and Afghanistan, the United States will inevitably remain a player in both conflicts. Washington will retain many levers of influence, including air operations, Special Forces missions, economic and military aid, and diplomatic sway.
The United States is not going to leave Syria and Afghanistan as speedily as the hawks fear or the doves hope. The departure of U.S. soldiers will be so slow that there may be time for the next war to begin before they reach the exit. “After many years,” Trump said of U.S. troops, “they are coming home.” The homecoming could, indeed, take many years.