Trump Plans Executive Order on Afghan Troop Withdrawal

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. planning large troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia, Yemen’s Houthis to be labeled terrorists by the United States, and Armenia’s foreign minister resigns.

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Trump Expected to Order Troop Withdrawal In Lame Duck Rush

U.S. President Donald Trump is set to order a dramatic and rapid cut in the number of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia as he seeks action from loyalists newly installed at the U.S. Department of Defense.

A perception that Mark Esper, the previous U.S. Secretary of Defense, would not agree to further troop reductions on so quick a schedule, was seen as one of the reasons for his removal from the post shortly after the U.S. presidential election.

Although the numbers are not yet public, several media reports signal a halving of current troop levels in Afghanistan from the 4,500 troops currently stationed there. A reduction in Iraq would be less severe, but almost all of the 700 U.S. troops stationed in Somalia are expected to return to the United States.

The move is one of the rare instances where Trump diverges from Republican Party orthodoxy: In his 2016 campaign, he shocked fellow Republican candidates on the debate stage by calling the Iraq war “a big fat mistake.” In office, he has criticized Pentagon leaders for wanting to “do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” So it’s not yet clear whether this is Trump merely reverting to type, or notching a quick win to burnish his credentials ahead of a possible 2024 run.

A popular move? Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned against a hasty “humiliating” withdrawal of troops, while Rep. Mark McCaul has said a “residual force” is necessary in Afghanistan to help secure peace.

Although Republican leaders are wary, a troop withdrawal appears to be popular among the American public. According to a YouGov poll commissioned by the libertarian Charles Koch Institute in August, 76 percent Americans supported withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with almost half of respondents strongly supporting withdrawal. The number supporting U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq was 74 percent.

The desire to end America’s wars in the Middle East and South Asia is felt similarly among U.S. military veterans. An April poll by another Koch-backed group found 73 percent of veterans surveyed supported a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, an almost 13 percent increase from the previous year. An NBC News 2020 election exit poll showed a 9 percent slide in the proportion of veterans supporting Trump: 51 percent versus 60 percent in 2016.

On the ground.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Emran Feroz reports from Afghanistan on the Khost Protection Force—a group established and trained by the CIA—that residents have learned to fear as they have been repeatedly implicated in atrocities in the region. As the United States prepares to remove its own troops, Feroz writes, “the KPF and other CIA-backed paramilitary groups are stepping up their attacks to assert themselves across the country.”


What We’re Following Today

U.S. to designate Houthis as terrorists. The Trump administration is set to designate Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi insurgents as a terrorist organization, complicating United Nations-brokered peace efforts and leaving a potential landmine for the Biden administration, according to a Foreign Policy exclusive report. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, an outspoken critic of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, has decried the move. “There is no doubt that the Houthis have led a brutal military campaign that has starved, imprisoned and killed many civilians,” Murphy said. “But if the U.S. government is going to designate international actors for intentionally harming civilians in Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition should also be at the top of that list.”

Ethiopia bombs Tigray capital. Ethiopia’s air force began bombing the Tigray region’s capital, Mekelle, on Monday in another escalation of the country’s civil war, now entering its third week. In a tweet he later deleted, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called for the two sides to negotiate and halt the conflict “lest it leads to unnecessary loss of lives and cripples the economy.” Redwan Hussein, a government spokesman, said the war would be a “short-lived operation,” and that mediation offers from Uganda or another country were not being considered.

Third time lucky? Francisco Sagasti has become Peru’s third president in the space of a week, after he was chosen by the country’s Congress to act as interim leader until elections in April. Sagasti’s party was one of the few that opposed the impeachment of former President Martín Vizcarra. Sagasti takes over at a time when Peru’s economy is projected to contract this year by a higher percentage than any country in Latin America.

Armenia seethes over peace deal. Armenia’s government is under strain after signing a cease-fire agreement with Azerbaijan in a Russian-backed deal a week ago. On Monday, Armenian Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan resigned after a public disagreement with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan over the direction of peace talks. Pressure on Pashinyan has shown no sign of easing in recent days: 17 opposition parties have called for his resignation as street protests against his leadership continue.


Keep an Eye On

Brazil’s electoral swings. Candidates backed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro were widely rejected in the country’s municipal elections on Sunday as Brazil’s Globo newspaper hailed the country’s left as “rejuvenated.” While Bolsonaro’s cousin Marcos and ex-wife Rogéria failed in their election bids, his son Carlos was reelected as a councilor in Rio de Janeiro. Despite the election results and a raging coronavirus epidemic, Bolsonaro himself is riding high in opinion polls, recently recording his highest approval rating since taking office.

Russia beefs up in Africa.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has approved a proposal to set up a naval base in Sudan, Russia’s first on the African continent, and has ordered his defense ministry to finalize a deal. The base, planned as logistical support for the Russian navy, can host four warships at any one time and accommodate up to 300 personnel. The Russian TASS news agency forecast that the base could eventually house Russian air defense systems, allowing it to create a far-reaching no-fly zone if necessary.

Gulf tensions.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani has criticized recent moves by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan to normalize relations with Israel, saying the warming of ties makes the possibility of Palestinian statehood more distant. Speaking at a security conference, al-Thani called for a united Arab front as the best way to support Palestinian interests. Qatar is still something of a pariah among Arab states as it remains under a blockade imposed by other Gulf leaders in 2017.


Odds and Ends 

Queen Elizabeth II was erroneously pronounced dead yesterday when her obituary was published prematurely on the website of Radio France Internationale (RFI). The Queen was one of a slew of notable living figures that RFI ran obituaries on: Brazilian soccer player Pelé, actors Brigitte Bardot and Clint Eastwood, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter were all featured after a “technical problem” led to their early publication. RFI said about 100 pre-written obituaries were published in all due to an error while migrating its website to a new service; it is conducting an internal investigation.


That’s it for today. 

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Image credit: Brendan Smialowski / AFP