WASHINGTON — President Trump visited American navy forces in Iraq on Wednesday, a shock journey and the primary go to to troops stationed overseas in a fight zone by a commander in chief who has made withdrawing the United States from overseas wars a signature challenge.
The journey, shrouded in secrecy, got here within the midst of a partial authorities shutdown and fewer than every week after Mr. Trump disrupted America’s navy establishment and infuriated even a few of his staunchest political allies by saying plans to withdraw all troops from Syria and about half of these stationed in Afghanistan. The president’s choice on Syria, revamped the objections of American navy generals and civilian advisers, led to the resignation of Mr. Trump’s protection secretary, Jim Mattis, and fueled tensions inside the nationwide safety institution.
The place Mr. Trump selected to go to is the one theater of warfare the place he has not promised a fast drawdown of forces — and it’s the place he claims his biggest navy victory, the defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul, the Iraqi metropolis the place the group’s chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the start of its self-proclaimed caliphate. The assault on Mosul by Iraqi forces, backed by Americans, started beneath President Barack Obama however culminated in the summertime of 2017 beneath Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump advised reporters on the bottom at Joint Base al Asad that he has no plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. Instead, he mentioned, America might use Iraq as a navy base to perform operations on Syria and combat the Islamic State.
“If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard they really won’t know what the hell happened,” Mr. Trump mentioned, in accordance to Bloomberg News. “We’ve knocked them silly.”
Mr. Trump’s assertion reflects one of the strategies proposed by the Pentagon after he announced his decision to withdraw troops from Syria last week. With British and French forces still on the ground, American commandos would be based in Iraq on the border where they could launch raids and other missions into Syria.
The Iraqi government declared an end to combat operations against the Islamic State in Iraq earlier this year, though there have been sporadic airstrikes in parts of the country where small groups of the militants have reappeared.
According to one American official, these fighters are no longer trying to hold territory like the militant group did in 2014, but act more as an insurgent groups bent on smaller-scale attacks.
At its height, the group controlled an amount of territory the size of Britain that stretched between Iraq and Syria. Now they hold less than 20 miles of ground near the Syrian town of Hajin.
Most of the fighting has been relegated to Syria, and the roughly 5,000 American troops in Iraq are largely assigned to training the Iraqi military and police. There have been no American combat deaths in Iraq this year, but in March an Air Force helicopter crashed near the city of al Qaim, killing all seven aboard, after it ran into electrical wires. That same month, Master Sgt. Jonathan J. Dunbar, an elite Army commando, was killed by a roadside bomb in Syria, marking the second American combat death in the country since ground troops were sent there in 2015.
Mr. Trump, who was accompanied by his wife, Melania Trump, was expected to make two stops on his post-Christmas trip, delivering a holiday message to the more than 5,000 American forces stationed in the country.
“President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said in a tweet.
Visiting troops abroad is a cherished tradition for presidents. President George W. Bush served Thanksgiving turkey to the soldiers in Baghdad in 2003, in the early days of the Iraq War. Mr. Obama flew to Baghdad in April 2009, four months after his inauguration, winning cheers when he told the troops it was time for the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own country. He visited Afghanistan four times while in office.
But nearly two years into his presidency, Mr. Trump had yet to visit any troops abroad, drawing criticism from various corners.
After he canceled a rainy-day visit to an American cemetery outside of Paris last month during a World War I battlefield commemoration, he told Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor, that he had not visited troops abroad because of “an unbelievably busy schedule.”
Mr. Trump ran for the presidency on a platform of bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and Syria, part of a broader strategy of ending nearly two decades of American military interventions — from Iraq and Libya to Syria and Afghanistan — that he criticized as costly, ineffective and at odds with his “America First” foreign policy.
But the United States still has 14,000 troops in Afghanistan and about 2,000 in Syria. While the number of casualties in these conflicts is a fraction of what it was during the two previous administrations, the fact that American troops are still on the ground — in the case of Afghanistan, 17 years after they were first deployed — attests to the difficulty of extracting the country from these entanglements.
Mr. Trump’s trip came at a sensitive moment, as the president’s clash with Mr. Mattis over the troop withdrawals opened a rift between the commander in chief and the military.
Over the weekend, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, accelerated his resignation, telling colleagues that he could not in good conscience carry out Mr. Trump’s newly declared policy of withdrawing American troops from Syria. Mr. McGurk, a seasoned diplomat who was considered central to the fight against the terrorist group, had originally planned to retire in February.
Mr. Trump’s announcements on Syria and Afghanistan have left a trail of confusion, with White House officials unable to explain the timetable for the withdrawals or their strategy to prevent a return of radical extremism in either country.
Adding to the sense of uncertainty around Mr. Trump’s trip is the partial shutdown of the government, which does not affect active-duty military but had led Mr. Trump to cancel his holiday visit to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and remain sequestered in the White House.
On Christmas, Mr. Trump and Melania Trump, the first lady, made calls from the West Wing to troops stationed abroad, though he was criticized in the media for being the first president since 2002 not to visit troops or wounded warriors on the holiday.
Mr. Trump says he has “done more for the military” than many of his recent predecessors but had not made visiting active duty military personnel a priority.
“I will do that at some point, but I don’t think it’s overly necessary,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press in October, when asked about visiting troops stationed abroad. “I’ve been very busy with everything that’s taking place here.”
“I’m doing a lot of things,” he added. “But it’s something I’d do and do gladly.”
Wednesday’s trip also took Mr. Trump out of the White House, where he had been venting his grievances over the partial government shutdown triggered by the stalemate over his demand for funding to build a wall along the southern border.
Mr. Trump, who had been scheduled to leave for a 16-day vacation in Palm Beach last Friday, instead has complained on Twitter in recent days that he is “all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security.”
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