Last week, the Biden administration announced the suspension of former President Donald Trump's plans to withdraw thousands of US troops from Germany pending a full review of the positioning of the US military around the world. It was a welcome move that gives Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin the opportunity to review a wide range of the Trump administration's defense policies and determine which to keep and which to discard. Two leading candidates for disposal are already clear: Trump's transactional approach to long-standing allies like Germany and his withdrawal of US forces from conflict areas on the basis of strict schedules.
As we all know by now, Trump usually treated habitual allies and partners in the US as burdens to be overthrown, rather than recognizing alliances as vital national security assets to be cherished. Beijing and Moscow can only dream of having a global network of capable allies like the United States.
Still, Trump mistook allies like Germany and South Korea for beneficiaries of charities and refused to appreciate the tremendous benefits of deploying U.S. forces in those countries. North Korea, for example, has nuclear weapons and ICBMs that can hit the United States. The US armed forces in the Korean peninsula play an important role in repelling an attack from Pyongyang on the US homeland. In addition to expressing a desire to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, Trump also made an easy mistake in advancing a counterproductive approach to the cost-sharing negotiations with Seoul that created unnecessary tensions that Beijing and Pyongyang certainly enjoyed.
Trump's approach to Europe was similarly short-sighted. After World War II, Washington wisely retained US forces in Europe and founded NATO in 1949. After more than 70 years, neither the Soviet Union nor Russia have invaded a NATO member state – even as Russia has invaded non-NATO countries like Ukraine and Georgia in recent years. The reason is deterrence: the presence of US forces in Europe makes it clear to Moscow that the United States and its NATO allies have the political unity and military capability to meet their obligation under Article 5 of NATO to jointly defend against any attack.
Additionally, the presence of U.S. forces in Germany, which is home to the best military training facilities and logistics infrastructure in Europe, helps support the Pentagon in its military operations in the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East.
So it was a clear case of cutting off your nose to piss off your face when Trump, out of a desire to punish Berlin for not spending enough on defense, initiated a plan to kill thousands of U.S. troops Remove Germany. And where did Trump want to send many of these forces? After Belgium and Italy, countries that spend even less on defense than Germany.
The announcement by the White House Biden deliberately halts the ill-advised withdrawal from Germany. But Austin shouldn't stop there. He should also investigate Trump's withdrawals from conflict areas, based on the false impression that the United States can ignore persistent terrorist threats and safely conduct withdrawals in Washington on arbitrary schedules.
In Syria, Trump expressed a desire to withdraw a small number of US forces working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat the so-called Caliphate of Islamic State. The SDF is estimated to have suffered more than 11,000 combat deaths. Without the SDF, the caliphate would either still exist or the US forces would have made these sacrifices instead. But in October 2019, Trump broke trust in the SDF and reduced pressure on Islamic State when he withdrew armed forces from the Syrian-Turkish border and allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to carry out an incursion into Syria.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces are working with partners to suppress terrorists who may launch another 9/11-style attack. The US armed forces are also supporting Afghans who are trying to prevent the establishment of another Islamic state-type regime – this time alongside nuclear-armed Pakistan. In Iraq, too, the US armed forces are trying to help Baghdad prevent the return of the Islamic State caliphate.
But on November 17, 2020, the Trump administration, disregarding the conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, announced that it would hastily reduce the US military presence in both countries by mid-January. Just five days before Biden's inauguration, Trump's incumbent defense minister confirmed that the withdrawal of just 2,500 soldiers in each country had taken place as ordered. Before Trump withdrew, the US military presence in both countries had plummeted from a high of more than 170,000 soldiers in Iraq in 2007 and around 100,000 in Afghanistan in 2011. Whether the small number of remaining troops will be sufficient to complete important missions is uncertain at best.
Biden's government appears ready to halt another temporary retreat in Afghanistan and assess conditions on the ground. In refreshingly sincere comments, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby noted that the Taliban had failed to fulfill its "commitments to renounce terrorism and stop violent attacks on the Afghan national security forces." Similarly, the Congress-mandated Afghanistan Study Group released a report on Feb. 3 warning of a steep retreat that ignores conditions in the country.
It will be easy for the Biden team to reverse the Trump administration's harangue against South Korea and abandon the stupid military withdrawal from Germany. We will see if the new administration has the wisdom to oppose calls for a full withdrawal of the US military contingents remaining in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria based on arbitrary calendar dates rather than local security needs and conditions.
All over the world US allies and partners are trying to deter authoritarian aggressors and defeat terrorists who want to impose a murderous, totalitarian theocracy. The question is whether the Americans are willing, if necessary, to support a relatively modest number of forward deployed US troops to help these allies and partners achieve these goals they share with the United States.
However, not all US military operations and interventions are or have been prudent. But there are also no withdrawals, as I recently outlined in a report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. All deserve a solid and independent exam. As Austin completes this review of the defense guidelines he inherited from the Trump administration, some of those guidelines should be worth maintaining. Trump's dealings with allies and military withdrawals are not among them.