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Troop drawdowns and Defense Dept. turnover leave U.S. foreign policy in flux

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has signed the order withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. Meanwhile, President Trump wants to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan by half. But what will the decreased U.S. military presence in these countries mean for their stability and American security? Nick Schifrin speaks with Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal for details and analysis.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    The president's decision to withdraw forces from Syria, signed yesterday by Defense Secretary James Mattis, and order the Pentagon to develop plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan could dramatically change the path of U.S. foreign policy here in Washington and overseas, where U.S. troops have been fighting multiple wars.

    In the Northern Syrian city of Manbij, American soldiers spent Sunday with their local allies, and patrolling a local market, exactly what President Trump has ordered them to stop. A year-and-a-half ago, U.S. troops teamed up with Syrian Kurds to evict ISIS from Manbij and other former ISIS strongholds.

    In total, there are 2,200 Americans in Syria. And over the last four years, U.S. support to anti-Assad forces and the Iraqi government and a U.S.-led campaign helped eliminate 99 percent of ISIS' territory across Syria and Iraq.

    But the main U.S. ground ally, Syrian Kurds, are seen by Turkey as an enemy. And, today, Turkish television broadcast footage of a military convoy deploying to the Syrian border. The Syrian Kurds warn they may have defend an imminent Turkish attack, and stop fighting ISIS terrorists, the head of their political wing, Ilham Ahmad, said this weekend.

  • Ilham Ahmad:

    Even when the Americans were not in the region, we were already fighting terrorism. We will continue our mission, but this will be difficult because our forces will have to withdraw from the front to deploy along the Turkish border to repel any attack.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But President Trump says the U.S. withdrawal is slow and highly coordinated with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

    And, today, Mr. Trump tweeted that Erdogan promised to — quote — "eradicate whatever is left of is in Syria. And he is a man who can do it. Plus, Turkey is right next door. Our troops are coming home."

  • Brett McGurk:

    Even as the end of the physical caliphate is clearly now coming into sight, the end of ISIS will be a much more long-term initiative.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That was the U.S.' top anti-ISIS official, Brett McGurk, just last week. This weekend, McGurk accelerated his February departure to protest the president's decision. McGurk argued the U.S. should stay in Syria, and better coordinate with allies, to ensure ISIS' defeat.

  • Brett McGurk:

    Nobody is declaring a mission accomplished. Defeating a physical caliphate is one phase of a much longer-term campaign.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the president opposes that kind of stabilization campaign in Syria and in Afghanistan, where U.S. officials say President Trump wants to cut the 14,000 troops in half. Most U.S. troops help train Afghan forces, and serve as a symbol to support the Afghan government.

    Others fight ISIS and the Taliban, helping create leverage in nascent peace talks between the Taliban and lead U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad. But President Trump says the U.S. will not support long-term military relationships without something in return.

    "We are substantially subsidizing the militaries of many very rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S. and our taxpayers on trade," he tweeted today. "General Mattis didn't see this as a problem. I do, and it is being fixed."

    Secretary of Defense James Mattis wanted to stay until February, but this weekend the president said he would leave next week, and replaced by deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

    Let's explore what all this means with Wall Street Journal national security reporter Nancy Youssef.

    Nancy Youssef, welcome to the "NewsHour. Thank you so much for being here.

  • Nancy Youssef:

    Great to be with you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's start with Syria.

    The president used the words slow and coordinated. What does that look like, most likely?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    Well, that's actually an issue that's changing even as we speak, because, when these talks started, the U.S. was talking about leaving Syrian 30 days.

    And now we are with starting to hear of a timeline that is as long as 120 days. And rather than just sort of precipitous withdrawal or drawdown, we are starting to hear talks about Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meeting with his Turkish counterparts.

    We're hearing about ways that possibly the U.S. could continue some form of its airstrike campaign in support of the coalition, and really coming up with a specific plan which would allow potentially for U.S. troops to go in temporarily, rather than picking up everything and leaving, so that the plan would be such that the U.S. can, in some way, support its Kurdish partners on the ground and try to protect its gains against the Islamic State, and even maybe finish off the last remnants there in the days and the weeks ahead.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So the president has said not that the U.S. is going to finish off ISIS, but that Turkey is going to finish off ISIS. He said that in a couple tweets.

    But is there any evidence that Turkey actually intends to do that or wants to target ISIS, rather than what it considers its enemy, the Syrian Kurds?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    Well, the challenge for the Turks even before that is, it's not clear that they have the military capability to go all the way down to where ISIS is, nearly 200 miles from the Turkish border.

    When they were in Afrin, which is much, much closer, they were really challenged by some of the logistics of conducting such a military operation. So there's that. And, as you point out, even if they were able to do it, it's not clear that they see ISIS as a preeminent threat. They have stated that they see the U.S.' Kurdish partners, members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, as a terrorist group.

    And so the idea that they would come in and work hand in hand the way the U.S. has with the Kurdish partners seems very, very unlikely. These are people they have literally called terrorists.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the U.S., though, have required the Kurds, they have needed the Kurds, they have allied absolutely with the Kurds.

    What are the Syrian Kurds' options right now? Could they even actually turn to the Assad government and form some sort of alliance there?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    We're already starting hear — but let me just start by saying they're still fighting ISIS, and they're not fighting mean necessarily out of loyalty to the United States, but to protect themselves, because they're on the front lines of that war.

    And we have started to hear that they're talking with the Assad regime. We have had members of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in Moscow and in Paris trying to negotiate. And what they're saying is, we're working with anybody we can to fill the vacuum that will be created when the Americans leave to protect our own interests.

    And so there's a scenario where they reach a deal with the Assad regime and the Assad regime then reaches a deal with partners like Russia to come up with some sort of exit and what a plan for what Northeast Syria looks like, who is where, who controls what.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    All right, so we got to do Syria and also Afghanistan.

    So, we have got about 14,000 troops right there right now. U.S. officials have talked about cutting that in half to 7,000. What kind of talk is there, if any, yet of the specifics of that withdrawal?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    So what's interesting is, we have been hearing for a long time that the Trump administration was looking for some sort of withdrawal plan out of Afghanistan, but in coordination with the ongoing peace talks being led by Zalmay Khalilzad.

    What's happened now is that the United States has sort of jumped ahead of those peace talks and said it has plans to withdraw half of its troops. There's — there are plans that could start that withdrawal as early as January.

    The problem is, one of the key components of the peace talks for the Taliban was coming up with some sort of number for U.S. troops leaving. And the U.S. now essentially said, we are going to give up half, without having gotten anything out of the Taliban. So it really raises questions, if we're already down by 7,000, could the Taliban negotiate something where that number drops even further?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, lastly, we have a new acting secretary of defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense Shanahan, very little government experience, was at Boeing.

    More aligned perhaps with the president?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    We don't know, because he's really a businessman. He has run the day-to-day operations. He's focused on business and the relationship between the business community and the Pentagon.

    And even in his confirmation hearing, he said, I'm here to complement the secretary of defense, Mattis, who will take care of policy. I will take care of business, and, in fact, stumbled a little bit when answering policy questions during his confirmation hearings about Ukraine.

    So, we don't know. That said, he has supported the president in his effort to create the Space Force. He is aligned with the president in terms of fixing things financially and putting the focus back on budgets and not on putting troops on the front lines.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And very quickly, in the time we have left, Secretary Mattis is trying to be professional at this moment, even though this is not a normal moment for the White House and the Department of Defense.

    What about his staff? Is there a level of anger? And will they stick around to help Secretary Shanahan?

  • Nancy Youssef:

    The indications right now are not, that a lot of people said that they joined the department when they did to work for Secretary Mattis, and they're already indications that as many as a dozen could be gone in the week ahead.

    And so that's a real challenge, because, as we have discussed, Secretary Shanahan doesn't have policy experience. And he will lose a lot of experience with Secretary Mattis' departure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nancy Youssef of The Wall Street Journal, thank you so much.

  • Nancy Youssef:

    My pleasure.

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