In a TV interview on Sunday, US President Donald Trump reaffirmed his commitment to pulling American troops out of “endless wars” in Syria and Afghanistan. However, he said the US would maintain a military presence in Iraq for the purpose of “watching” Iran.
Trump said the human and financial cost of fighting in Afghanistan, the place where the 9/11 attacks were hatched, was unacceptable.
“It’s time,” he said in the interview with CBS’s Face the Nation. “And we’ll see what happens with the Taliban. They want peace. They’re tired. Everybody’s tired.”
Trump’s comments follow warnings by US intelligence chiefs that a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria could pave the way for a resurgence by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
On Thursday, the US Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of a measure sponsored by Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of Trump’s Republican party, warning against a “precipitous withdrawal” from either country.
However, Trump appeared indifferent to the rare Republican pushback, emphasizing that his promises to bring US troops home was “a big part” of the reason he was elected.
American officials have been holding talks in Qatar with the Taliban on a framework for peace negotiations, raising hopes that the 17-year-old conflict can be resolved.
On Syria, Trump said the 2,000 US troops deployed in the country to assist local forces would leave “in a matter of time” but cited the need to protect Israel “and other things that we have” – after initially announcing an immediate pull-out on Twitter.
He said he will soon be announcing the recapture of “100% of the caliphate” once claimed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“We’re at 99% right now. We’ll be at 100,” said the president, who was expected to make the announcement during his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday.
US intelligence warning
In a report to Congress last week, US intelligence leaders warned that ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and they could easily make a comeback in the absence of American forces.
When his intelligence chiefs appeared to contradict him on Iran and North Korea, the president responded by calling his intelligence chiefs “naive” and “wrong.”
In the interview, he played down the danger of an extremist resurgence but said: “We’ll come back if we have to.”
He added, “You’re going to always have pockets of something. But you’re not going to keep armies there because you have a few people. Or you even have fairly reasonable numbers of people.”
The United States will not, however, give up its bases in Iraq.
“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” he said.
The US military presence in Iraq, he said, is “perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East.”
He added, “We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.”
In Afghanistan, Trump said he would leave behind intelligence people – “and if I see nests forming, I’ll do something about it.”
Trump added, “We got to get out of these endless wars and bring our folks back home. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be watching with intelligence. We’re going to be watching, and watching closely.”
– with reporting by Agence France-Presse