Trump in Iraq on first visit to troops in trou­bled re­gion

The Standard Journal - - LOCAL - By Dar­lene Su­perville

AL-ASAD AIRBASE, Iraq — Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump made an unan­nounced visit to Iraq last Wed­nes­day, leav­ing be­hind a par­tially shut­tered U.S. govern­ment to greet Amer­i­can troops help­ing hold off ex­trem­ists in a coun­try where thou­sands of Amer­i­cans died dur­ing the re­cent war.

It came a week af­ter Trump stunned his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers by an­nounc­ing that he would with­draw U.S. troops from neigh­bor­ing Syria where they have been fight­ing Is­lamic State mil­i­tants. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis abruptly re­signed fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment, and Trump’s de­ci­sion rat­tled al­lies around the world, in­clud­ing in Iraq.

Trump’s trip was shrouded in se­crecy. Air Force One flew overnight from Wash­ing­ton, and landed at an airbase west of Baghdad un­der the cover of dark­ness on Dec. 26. It is his first visit with troops sta­tioned in a trou­bled re­gion.

Fif­teen years af­ter the 2003 in­va­sion, the U.S. still has more than 5,000 troops in Iraq sup­port­ing the govern­ment as it con­tin­ues the fight against re­main­ing pock­ets of re­sis­tance by the Is­lamic State group. IS has lost a sig­nif­i­cant amount of ter­ri­tory in Iraq and Syria but is still seen as a threat.

Trump, who speaks of­ten about his sup­port for the U.S. mil­i­tary, had faced crit­i­cism for not yet vis­it­ing U.S. troops sta­tioned in harm’s way as he comes up on his two-year mark in of­fice. He told The As­so­ci­ated Press in an in­ter­view in Oc­to­ber that he “will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly nec­es­sary.” He later be­gan to sig­nal that such a troop visit was in the off­ing.

Trump had planned to spend Christ­mas at his pri­vate club in Florida, but stayed be­hind in Wash­ing­ton due to the shut­down. It’s un­clear whether his trip to Iraq was added af­ter it be­came ap­par­ent that the govern­ment would be shut down in­def­i­nitely due to a stale­mate be­tween Trump and con­gres­sional Democrats over the pres­i­dent’s de­mand for a wall along the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der.

Adding to the tu­mult, the stock mar­ket has been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing heavy losses over con­cerns about a slow­ing global econ­omy, Trump’s trade war with China and the pres­i­dent’s pub­lic slam­ming of the Fed­eral Re­serve and its chair­man over in­ter­est rate hikes by the in­de­pen­dent agency.

Trump’s visit comes at a time when his Mid­dle East pol­icy is in flux. He went against the views of his top na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers in an­nounc­ing the Syria with­drawal, a de­ci­sion that risks cre­at­ing a vac­uum for ex­trem­ists to thrive.

There are dire im­pli­ca­tions in par­tic­u­lar for neigh­bor­ing Iraq. The Iraqi govern­ment now has con­trol of all the coun­try’s cities, towns and vil­lages af­ter fight­ing its last ur­ban bat­tles against IS in De­cem­ber 2017. But its po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion re­mains un­cer­tain, and the coun­try con­tin­ues to ex­pe­ri­ence spo­radic bomb­ings, kid­nap­pings and as­sas­si­na­tions, which most peo­ple at­tribute to IS.

Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Adel Ab­dul-Mahdi re­cently said Iraqi troops could de­ploy into Syria to pro­tect Iraq from threats across its bor­ders. Iraq keeps re­in­force­ments along its fron­tier to guard against in­fil­tra­tion by IS mil­i­tants, who hold a pocket of ter­ri­tory along the Euphrates River.

Trump cam­paigned for of­fice on a plat­form of end­ing U.S. in­volve­ment in for­eign trou­ble spots, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Syria de­ci­sion will ul­ti­mately af­fect all of the ap­prox­i­mately 2,000 troops de­ployed in the war-torn coun­try. The Pen­tagon is also said to be de­vel­op­ing plans to with­draw up to half of the 14,000 Amer­i­can troops still serv­ing in Afghanistan.

Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Trump blamed Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton for the rise of IS, due to the with­drawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 dur­ing her ten­ure as sec­re­tary of state.

Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush is the one who set the 2011 with­drawal date as part of an agree­ment with the Iraqi govern­ment to grad­u­ally shrink the U.S. foot­print and slowly hand off se­cu­rity re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the govern­ment and Iraqi se­cu­rity forces.

His suc­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, wanted to leave a resid­ual force in Iraq to help the govern­ment man­age on­go­ing se­cu­rity chal­lenges. But he ul­ti­mately went ahead with the sched­uled pull­out in 2011 af­ter Iraqi’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers re­jected terms the U.S. sought for le­gal pro­tec­tions for the U.S. troops that would have re­mained.

Two of Trump’s re­cent pre­de­ces­sors vis­ited Iraq early in their terms.

Bush vis­ited Iraq in Novem­ber 2003, about eight months af­ter that con­flict be­gan. Due to se­cu­rity con­cerns, Bush waited un­til 2006 to make his first visit to Afghanistan.

Obama vis­ited Iraq in April 2009, the first year of his eight years in of­fice, as part of an over­seas tour. He vis­ited Afghanistan in 2010.

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence vis­ited Afghanistan in De­cem­ber 2017, not long af­ter Trump out­lined a strat­egy to break the stale­mate in Amer­ica’s long­est war. Pence met with Afghan lead­ers and vis­ited with U.S. troops sta­tioned in the coun­try. Trump has not vis­ited Afghanistan.

(AP Photo/An­drew Harnik)

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump vis­its with mem­bers of the mil­i­tary at a din­ing hall at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wed­nes­day, Dec. 26, 2018.

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