It turns out that Trump was planning a military “coup” in the last desperate weeks of his tenure, but not the kind you might think. According to Axios reporters Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu, Trump did want to railroad his own military generals — by demanding they get all of their troops out of Afghanistan, as well as Germany, Africa, Iraq and Syria, too.
And, according to Swan and Basu’s exhaustive reporting, the generals pushed back, thwarting Trump’s plans to completely withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of the year. Instead he achieved only drawdown of only 2,500 personnel by January 15, leaving his successor to announce the a full withdrawal by Sept. 11 of this year. There was a modest drawdown in Iraq and a shifting of troops out of Somalia before Trump left, but a delay in plans to extract personnel from Germany resulted in Biden already reversing the orders, and the Syrian question has been left off the table completely.
The Axios article examines the timeline from Trump’s election loss and his swift firing of several top Pentagon officials, including DoD Secretary Mark Esper, who was replaced by Homeland Security official and former military officer Christopher Miller. Ret. Col. Doug Macgregor, a military iconoclast who made his fame in the first Persian Gulf War was brought in as a top advisor. Macgregor, a longtime critic of U.S. war policy and an advocate of pulling out of Afghanistan and other protracted operations overseas (and of the generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley), was seen as Trump’s interlocutor for executing his final demand, which was sidelining the generals.
And he was, as much as he could. According to Swan and Basu, Trump had trusted aide John McEntee hand Macgregor a list on Nov. 9 that said bluntly:
1. Get us out of Afghanistan.
2. Get us out of Iraq and Syria.
3. Complete the withdrawal from Germany.
4. Get us out of Africa.
“This is what he wants you to do,” McEntee told Macgregor, who responded that this must come in the form of an official presidential memorandum or acting Secretary Miller won’t have the authority to do any of it. He helped McEntee draft the memo. It was sent out, but as Swan and Basu describe in laborious detail, it got “lost” in translation. Days later a memo was signed by the lame duck president, but it was not the one Macgregor helped to draft. There was such a backlash in the Pentagon that by the time Miller and aides got through with Trump, he signed off on something much more tepid, including the smaller drawdown from Afghanistan by Jan. 15.
“And with that, Trump folded on total withdrawal for the last time as president,” Swan and Basu write.
This is an important read, which also includes new speculation about whether Gen. Milley was actively working against the civilian leadership in the Pentagon during this period. Interestingly, while Trump was railing about “stop the steal” he wasn’t doing what everyone had accused him of doing on the military side: he wasn’t using Macgregor, Miller, et al., to stay in office. Rather, he seemed to believe that following through with his pledge to “end forever wars” would be the ultimate revenge against Esper, Milley, and Generals H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis. Too bad he did not achieve this one post-election fantasy.