When President Donald Trump met Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of U.S.-led military forces fighting ISIS during a surprise visit to Iraq on Wednesday, it was the first time the Commander in Chief had spoken directly to a military commander on the ground in a combat zone since taking office nearly two years ago.
Trump and First Lady Melania Trump made the trip to Al Asad Air Base, a joint U.S.-Iraqi military base west of Baghdad, the day after Christmas. “I want to come and pay my respects, most importantly, to the great soldiers, great troopers we have here,” Trump told reporters after landing at the base.
Trump’s visit was colored by his unexpected and controversial decision last week to pull all 2,200 troops from neighboring Syria within 30 days. In announcing the order, Trump declared victory in the war against ISIS, or Islamic State. LaCamera and many of the service members stationed at Al Asad Air Base currently battling ISIS in the region will likely face additional challenges in the fight against the terrorist organization as a result of Trump’s unilateral order.
During the brief visit to Iraq, Trump and the First Lady met inside a tan domed tent with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman and National Security Advisor John Bolton, as well as LaCamera and other U.S.officials. A scheduled in-person meeting with Iraq’s prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi was cancelled without explanation.
After brief remarks to officials and reporters, Trump and the First Lady visited with U.S. troops at a dining facility decorated for Christmas with bells, foil balls and red, green and blue-colored lights. The Trumps made their way through the crowd for about 15 minutes, taking photos and selfies with service members. Trump stopped several times to sign service members’ red Make America Great Again hats and at one point autographed an embroidered patch that read “TRUMP 2020.”
In explaining his decision to withdraw troops from Syria, Trump told reporters in Iraq on Wednesday that he had repeatedly directed “the generals” to get out of Syria, but that they asked for multiple six-month extensions. “I said, ‘Nope.’ You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time. We’ve knocked them out,” he said, referring to ISIS. “We’ve knocked them silly.”
Trump suggested that regional U.S. allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, would take up the fight against “remnants of ISIS” in the U.S.’s absence from Syria, describing the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis as a regional problem. “We are in their region,” he said of other Middle Eastern nations. “They should be sharing the burden of costs and they’re not.”
Trump relayed his recent conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “In Syria, Erdogan said he wants to knock out ISIS, whatever’s left, the remnants of ISIS,” Trump said. “And Saudi Arabia just came out and said they are going to pay for some economic development. Which is great, that means we don’t have to pay.”
“The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world,” he said. He went on, “We don’t want to be taken advantage of any more by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them. They don’t pay for it, and they’re going to have to.”
U.S. generals and advisers have been sharply critical of Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria. Some say the order could destabilize the region, increase the likelihood of future terrorist attacks, and result in the Turkish military slaughtering the Kurds, longtime U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups in the region.
In Iraq, where ISIS once controlled large swaths of territory, U.S. forces have aided Iraqi troops in a protracted and grinding battle against the terrorist group that began under President Barack Obama in 2014. In December 2017, the Iraqi government officially declared victory over ISIS after a ground war that killed thousands of Iraqis, devastated rural towns, obliterated major cities, and destabilized the government in Baghdad.
Trump has said repeatedly that ISIS has been defeated. The terrorist group has lost roughly 99% of its territory in Iraq and Syria and is no longer in control of any major city. On Wednesday, Trump downplayed the possibility that a vacuum of U.S. military power in Syria could allow ISIS to rebuild. “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,” he said, adding that he has no plans to withdraw troops from Iraq.
But U.S. military officials say ISIS still poses a significant security threat, both in the region and worldwide. In August, the Pentagon published an inspector general’s report that estimated as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. A United Nations report published that same month made a similar assessment.
Roughly 5,000 U.S. troops are still deployed to Iraq in a campaign called Operation Last Warning. The U.S.-led military coalition continues a daily battle against the remaining ISIS fighters holed up in a stretch of desert along the Middle Euphrates River Valley, near the Iraq-Syria border.
On Tuesday, British Army Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, one of the top commanders of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, reiterated the need to continue to fight ISIS on the ground. “ISIS presents a very real threat to the long-term stability in this region and our mission remains the same, the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he said in a statement.
The U.S. military said Tuesday that coalition warplanes and artillery guns launched airstrikes against ISIS fighters inside Syria between Dec. 16 and 22. The strikes hit “ISIS logistics facilities and staging areas” and killed “several hundred ISIS fighters from the battlefield.”
Trump’s decision to pull all troops from Syria was widely condemned by U.S. generals, leading to the resignations of both Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIS.
With American forces leaving neighboring Syria, U.S. service members in Iraq will likely take on more responsibility to fight ISIS in the region. A new NATO-led mission in Iraq is also working to develop security institutions and structures within Iraq.
Trump’s first visit to U.S. troops deployed abroad came during the ongoing government shut-down in Washington, which began last week after the Trump Administration and Congress failed to agree over funding for a wall at the U.S. border with Mexico. Trump told reporters in Iraq that he’s willing to allow the government to remain shutdown for “whatever it takes.” “We need a wall. We need safety for our country,” he said.
The details of Trump and the First Lady’s surprise trip to Iraq were embargoed on Tuesday and Wednesday for security reasons until the President had finished giving remarks to troops.
In the final hour of their visit in Iraq, Trump and the First Lady addressed more than a hundred service members. “I’m very proud of you,” Melania told the crowd. The President then channelled the familiar energy of one of his campaign rallies.
“We like to win? Do we like to win?” Trump said, his voice rising over the troops’ prolonged cheers.
W.J. Hennigan contributed reporting from Chicago.