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US president Donald Trump defends Syria pullout, expresses unhappiness with Afghan deployment

Asked about US troops in Iraq — a little over 5,000 — US president Donald Trump said, unequivocally, he had no plans of pulling them out yet. “No plans at all, no,” he said.

world Updated: Dec 27, 2018 13:00 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Donald Trump,Syria pullout,Afghan deployment
US president Donald Trump delivers remarks to US troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq on December 26, 2018. (Reuters Photo)

President Donald Trump has defended his decision to withdraw troops from Syria and on Wednesday signalled during his first visit to US troops serving in a conflict zone, Iraq, his unhappiness with the deployment in Afghanistan, now the longest in American history.

“I gave notice in Syria, you know, the way it was reported was like I just pulled out; I didn’t just pull out,” Trump said to reporters when asked about his announcement to pull out 2,000 US troops from Syria last week.

It was seen as a stunning decision taken despite the advice to the contrary from senior aides.

“I’ve been talking about it for a year and a half. I’ve been telling the generals, ‘Let’s go. Go ahead, take more time. Let’s go. Take more time.’ Constantly giving them more time. Finally, I said, ‘Okay, it’s now time for others to take over that fight.’ We don’t want to be there.”

The Syria decision triggered the resignations of defence secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, whose defeat President Trump has cited as his reason for pulling out of Syria. “We’ve knocked out about 99% of the caliphate (caliphate is the Islamic State’s dream realm),” he had said.

Asked about US troops in Iraq, a little over 5,000, the president said, unequivocally, he had no plans of pulling them out yet. “No plans at all, no,” he said. “In fact, we could use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria. If I will say this, if you take ISIS and if we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard, they won’t, they really won’t know what the hell happened,” he said.

The president has been sceptical of US interventions abroad, in broad disagreement to Republican thinking but in agreement with a marginal Libertarian fringe of the party, and ran his campaign opposing overseas wars. And since taking office he has pushed the military to end them.

“We’ve been here, and if you look at Afghanistan, 19 years,” the US president said, imposing a new timeline on the American presence in Afghanistan, which, has been acknowledged officially as having lasted 17 years so far, starting in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

The US has an estimated 14,000 troops, or somewhat more, in Afghanistan, engaged in counter-terrorism operations and aiding and advising Afghan forces, essentially training the country’s armed forces, a supremely tough task, sources said, of managing and overcoming ethnic affiliations.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal plans, which US military commanders on the ground in Afghanistan have not received yet, have caused worries in the region. Especially in Kabul, which depends on US security presence to ward off the Taliban, who control almost half the country now.

New Delhi, with billions of dollars in developmental investment, also banks on the US-led international coalition forces for much of its reconstruction effort in the country, which started years ago on the watch of president George W Bush and continue through president Barack Obama’s tenure to president Trump.

India had felt encouraged, in fact, by a larger role the Trump administration envisaged for it in Afghanistan in its South Asia strategy unveiled last year. That optimism has given way now to confusion as New Delhi felt blindsided by the Afghan decision as other allies, friends and partners of the US.

First Published: Dec 27, 2018 11:23 IST