Politico has its panties in a twist over several changes at the Pentagon that could either presage a “coup” or are a simple matter of rewarding cronies for their loyalty.
You can guess which side Politico comes down on, but the changes that resulted from the firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the resignation of three other top-ranking officials do have policy implications. Donald Trump wants to fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan before he leaves office and the people he has placed in key positions can very well make that happen.
Current and former administration officials say Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper Monday in part over his opposition to accelerating troop drawdowns worldwide, and especially in Afghanistan. The upheaval accelerated on Tuesday with the resignation of three high-level civilians and the installation of loyalists who are expected to ram through Trump’s agenda, and continued on Wednesday when retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, an outspoken critic of the war in Afghanistan, was brought on as senior adviser to new acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller.
Miller, a highly decorated former special forces soldier is not likely to be pushed around by Macgregor or anyone else. But if the commander-in-chief wants options on leaving Afghanistan immediately, Miller will supply them. And he can certainly count on Macgregor’s support.
Any move to accelerate withdrawals would set up a clash with the nation’s top generals and other civilians, who have argued publicly against leaving Afghanistan too quickly while the security situation remains volatile. It would also complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to leave a small number of troops in the country to guard against terror attacks.
Some of those same officials have argued against leaving Afghanistan at all. As far as the “security situation,” has there ever been a time since the Soviets invaded that Afghanistan wasn’t “volatile”? The last two presidents have given orders that the U.S. should only leave Afghanistan if it can be shown that the territory will never threaten the United States again.
The current agreement with the Taliban calls for a gradual drawdown with all troops gone by May. And the agreement includes a pledge by the Taliban not to allow al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group to establish a presence. The criteria for leaving have been met. Should Trump ignore the deal and order U.S. troops out by inauguration day?
Officials in the Pentagon are concerned, for example, about the possibility that the president could threaten again to deploy active-duty troops to quash election-related unrest, or to help prevent a presidential transition.
Yet other officials see the personnel moves as basic cronyism, and even an implicit acknowledgement that Trump’s allies risk being out of a job come Jan. 20.
Many of the “warnings” are basic Pentagon gossip. Note that the sources are almost all anonymous with little or no proof to back their claims that something nefarious is afoot. As commander-in-chief, if Trump wants the troops out of Afghanistan before January 20 to fulfill a political promise, they will be gone. All the rest of these warnings of evil goings-on are the grousing of anti-Trump civilians and officers.