WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump visited U.S. military forces in Iraq on Wednesday, a surprise trip and the first visit to troops stationed abroad in a combat zone by a commander in chief who has made withdrawing the United States from foreign wars a signature issue.
The trip, shrouded in secrecy, came in the midst of a government shutdown and less than a week after Trump disrupted America’s military status quo and infuriated even some of his staunchest political allies by announcing plans to withdraw troops from Syria and about half of those stationed in Afghanistan. That decision on Syria, made over the objections of U.S. military generals and civilian advisers, led to the resignation of Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and fueled tensions within the national security establishment.
The place Trump chose to visit is the one theater of war where he has not promised a rapid drawdown of forces — and it is where he claims his greatest military victory, the defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul, the Iraqi city where the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of its self-proclaimed caliphate. The assault on Mosul by Iraqi forces, backed by Americans, began under President Barack Obama but culminated in the summer of 2017 under Trump.
Trump was expected to make two stops on his post-Christmas trip, delivering a holiday message to the more than 5,000 U.S. forces stationed in the country.
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. 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, 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.”
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Trump’s trip came at a sensitive moment, as the president’s clash with 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 Trump’s newly declared policy of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. McGurk, a seasoned diplomat who was considered central to the fight against the terrorist group, had originally planned to retire in February.
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 is the partial shutdown of the government, which does not affect active-duty military but had led Trump to cancel his holiday visit to his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and remain sequestered in the White House.
On Christmas, 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.