Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Thursday, leading a chorus of protests at home and abroad after President Donald Trump who ordered a complete troop pullout from Syria and a significant withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Trump steadfastly defended his sudden push for retrenchment, vowing that the United States would no longer be the “policeman of the Middle East” and saying the 2,000-strong US force in Syria was no longer needed as the Islamic State group had been defeated.
Mattis, a battle-hardened retired four-star general seen as a moderating force on the often impulsive president, made little attempt to hide his disagreements with Trump.
“Because you have the right to have a secretary of defence whose views are better aligned with yours,” Mattis said in a letter to Trump, “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
Mattis hailed the coalition to defeat the Islamic State as well as Nato, the nearly 70-year-old alliance between North America and Europe whose cost-effectiveness has been questioned by the businessman turned president.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote.
One day after the surprise announcement on Syria, a US official told AFP that Trump had also decided on a “significant withdrawal” in a much larger US operation — Afghanistan.
Some 14,000 troops are fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of the longest-ever US war, launched in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Wall Street Journal reported that more than half would be returning.
Trump has surrounded himself with former military men and shown an uncharacteristic public deference toward Mattis, a bookish 68-year-old who has disagreed with the president behind the scenes on issues from Russia to Iran to accepting transgender soldiers.
He hinted at Mattis’s departure as far back as October, telling CBS: “It could be that he is (leaving). I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth… He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves.”
On Twitter Thursday, however, Trump had only praise for his defence secretary, who will serve until the end of February, crediting him with achieving “tremendous progress.”
US lawmakers across the political spectrum voiced concern over a rebirth of the Islamic State group in Syria and sounded an alarm as Mattis unmoors from the unpredictable administration.
Senator Marco Rubio, a member of Trump’s Republican Party, said Mattis in his letter “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances and empower our adversaries.”
Democratic Senator Mark Warner called Mattis “an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration” and voiced fears of policy driven by “the president’s erratic whims.”
Trump was quick to note that he has ramped up military spending, but he has been most interested in deploying troops at home to carry out his key domestic goal of cracking down on unauthorised immigration.
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight,” he tweeted.