Pentagon Leadership Changes Could Open Way for Trump to Order an Afghanistan Drawdown
President Donald Trump now has a team in place at the Pentagon that can execute his policy preferences without the pushback he was getting from establishment figures who did not agree with his agenda — particularly on the drawdown from Afghanistan.
Trump this week fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had been on the chopping block since early June, when he publicly declared at a press conference that he opposed deploying active duty troops to quell riots that were happening around the country.
Trump had not asked troops to deploy, but had threatened to do so if governors did not do more to stop the violence and looting that had engulfed major American cities. Esper’s public opposition undermined Trump’s threat.
In addition, Esper claimed he was unaware he was engaging in what he called a “photo op” when he accompanied the president on a walk across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, in what was meant to be a show of strength after rioters almost breached White House grounds.
After that, it was expected by administration officials that Esper would be fired after the election, regardless of the outcome.
A former administration official said under Esper, there had been “persistent slow-rolling.”
“Things that were supposed to take a week took a month and things that were supposed to take a month took six months,” the former official said.
Esper “really screwed” Trump and constrained him by announcing his opposition to the potential of troops deploying, the former official added.
Trump on Monday finally announced Esper’s firing in a terse tweet:
…Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 9, 2020
Also fired was the top defense official on policy James Anderson. Two additional staffers resigned: Esper’s chief of staff Jen Stewart, and Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Joseph Kernan.
Stewart was previously a House aide to establishment Republicans, such as outgoing House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-TX), and former House Speakers Paul Ryan (R-WI) and John Boehner (R-OH). She also served as an adviser to former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. (Ret.) Joseph Dunford.
Kernan was long planning to resign and did not step down in protest, a current administration official said.
In their places, there is now a new slate of Trump appointees who support Trump’s agenda.
National Counterterrorism Center Director Chris Miller is now acting secretary of defense. Former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and current National Security Council aide Kash Patel has replaced Stewart.
Army Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Tony Tata has now replaced Anderson as the top defense policy official. Trump tried to appoint him to the position months ago, but ran into Senate opposition.
Thomas Williams has backfilled Tata as the top deputy defense policy official and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operation and Low-Intensity Conflict Ezra Cohen-Watnick has replaced Kernan.
Current and former administration officials say they are not exactly sure what Trump has planned for the Pentagon, in the wake of the election and personnel changes.
The former administration official said Trump believes he has a legitimate shot at a second term. “You might not have Thanksgiving dinner, but you’re going to set the table anyway,” the former official said.
There is hope from his allies that he will end the war in Afghanistan and with supporters in key positions, Trump is better positioned to implement that.
“From the start of his presidency, President Trump has been determined to end this nearly two decade war and bring our troops home. I fully believe he wants to fulfill this promise to America,” said Sergio Gor, a senior Trump campaign aide, told Breitbart News on Thursday.
“For too long, those around him, undermined his desire to bring troops home and declare victory. Now is the time to do it!” he added.
Trump had faced resistance from Esper on Afghanistan.
Never Trumper Bill Kristol tweeted Wednesday that one of his takeaways from conversations with recent DOD senior officials included that “DOD under Esper has pushed back more than many people realize against many Trump ideas, ranging from use of troops here at home, to Afghan withdrawal, to military options re Iran.”
FWIW, my takeaway from conversations last night with recent DOD senior officials:
1) DOD under Esper has pushed back more than many people realize against many Trump ideas, ranging from use of troops here at home, to Afghan withdrawal, to military options re Iran.
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) November 11, 2020
According to another former administration official, the Pentagon earlier this year presented Trump with multiple options for drawing down from Afghanistan, including drawing troops down to 2,500 by early 2021. Trump wants that option, but the Pentagon has pushed back against it, the former official said.
The fight spilled out in the open in October between National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, with O’Brien saying U.S. troops would be 2,500 by early next year and Milley calling that “speculation.”
O’Brien responded back: “The President has set a timeline for troop withdrawal — we are going to be down to under 5,000 troops within the next month, and in the early part of next year we’re going to be down to 2,500 troops.”
“That has been suggested by some that that’s speculation. I can guarantee you that’s the plan of the President of the United States,” he added.
Another person recently appointed to the Pentagon who could steer an Afghanistan drawdown is Army Col. (Ret.) Doug Macgregor. Macgregor has long advocated drawing down U.S. forces from Afghanistan, as well as other places, including South Korea.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a staunch advocate of ending the Afghanistan War and an ally of Trump, tweeted Thursday morning, “I am very pleased @realDonaldTrump asked my friend Col. Doug Macgregor to help quickly end the war in Afghanistan. This and other picks for Pentagon are about getting the right people who will finally help him stop our endless wars”:
I am very pleased @realDonaldTrump asked my friend Col. Doug Macgregor to help quickly end the war in Afghanistan. This and other picks for Pentagon are about getting the right people who will finally help him stop our endless wars.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) November 12, 2020
Trump is also getting support from another ally, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
Biggs wrote in a letter published Wednesday, on Veterans Day:
I commend your efforts so far to bring our engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq to an end, including your bold decision to open negotiations with the Taliban and your ambitious plan to remove thousands of United States servicemembers from these two countries.
He added, “I urge you to continue to aggressively pursue these and all other related efforts in the coming weeks. What greater gift could we give the American people as we head into the holiday season?”