In 2018, as American officials in Kabul were sitting down to negotiate with the Taliban, a bleak joke circulated in the U.S. Embassy that at any moment the talks could be derailed by “the Tweet of Damocles”—a unilateral decision by President Trump to withdraw all American soldiers from the country without any deal at all. Now, in the waning days of his term, Trump may attempt to impose such a withdrawal, if not by tweet then by a last-minute act of will.
An Administration official who sees the outgoing President regularly told me that Trump is determined to bring home all forty-five hundred U.S. troops that remain in Afghanistan—or at least as many as possible before he leaves office. “He wants to put us on an irreversible course to a total withdrawal,” the official said.
Getting out of Afghanistan was, the official said, one of the primary motivations behind Trump’s decision to fire Mark Esper, his Secretary of Defense, earlier this week. Since Trump’s election, in 2016, he has promised to end the country’s military involvement in Afghanistan, where American troops have been engaged since 2001. Trump has reduced the size of the force there—from about ten thousand troops when he took office—and he announced as recently as last month that all American forces would be coming home by Christmas. But he has not achieved a total withdrawal, which he has blamed on his Defense Secretaries—principally Esper and his predecessor, James Mattis. Trump “felt like he has been slow-walked ever since he came into office,” the Administration official said. “Now with Esper gone, he can do it.”
A former U.S. official who meets with senior policymakers confirmed this description of Trump’s intentions. “It’s all up in the air now,” he said, of America’s Afghan policy.
The situation in Afghanistan is tenuous. In February, American and Taliban diplomats signed an agreement, by which the United States would withdraw all of its forces once security conditions in Afghanistan were stable. But Trump has been reducing the number of U.S. troops even though the conditions have not yet been met. American officials say that the President has been undercutting his own negotiators and emboldening the Taliban. “The trouble with the Taliban is, they are getting everything for free now,” an American official told me.
It’s not clear that there would be enough time to pull off a full withdrawal before Trump leaves office. Afghanistan is landlocked, and surrounded by countries that are either hostile to the U.S. or difficult to traverse. America’s NATO allies also have a total of ten thousand troops in the country, and the U.S. would have to assist their withdrawal.
A complete pullout would have serious consequences. Most diplomats and military commanders agree that, without continued American financial and military support, Afghanistan’s government and armed forces would eventually collapse. The American official said, “I hope the President realizes that if we leave, the debate will become ‘Who lost Afghanistan?’ ”
Many American and Afghan leaders fear that a total withdrawal would turn Afghanistan’s long-festering civil war into a full-on conflagration. An Afghan leader told me that groups across the political spectrum were preparing themselves. “Everyone can see what is happening, and they’re arming,” he said.
As Trump fired Esper, his campaign officials continued an aggressive campaign to overturn the results of the Presidential election, filing lawsuits that alleged voter fraud and pressing Republican-controlled state legislatures in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere to award electoral votes to President Trump. “The pressure to overturn the voters is very real,” a Democratic elected official in Michigan told me. “I will not celebrate Biden’s victory until he’s taken the oath.”
The Administration official told me that the drama around the election was mostly political theatre, intended to salve Trump’s bruised ego. “Everyone around the President knows it’s over—except for him,” the official said. Attorney General William Barr recently sent a letter to U.S. attorneys, directing them to look into allegations of voter fraud; the official maintained that Barr was trying to placate Trump while alerting prosecutors to ignore anything short of substantial fraud. “He was telling prosecutors the rule of law is going to be followed,” the official said.
The Administration official said that several people around Trump were trying to persuade him to concede his loss to President-elect Joe Biden—a manifestly unpleasant task. Since November 3rd, Trump’s mood has shifted from denial to anger, he added. “We view that as progress,” he said.
After displacing Esper, Trump presided over other tumultuous firings and hirings in America’s security institutions. At the Pentagon, he removed several senior officials and installed four new ones, many of whom are associates or former employees of Representative Devin Nunes, a fervent supporter of Trump. In early 2017, when Nunes was the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he called a press conference to announce that a whistle-blower in the intelligence community had shared with him classified documents that exonerated the President of any improper actions concerning Russia during the 2016 election. It turned out that the documents’ real source was a group of Trump aides, who showed them to Nunes during a late-night visit to the White House. Nunes was forced to step aside from his committee’s investigation into Russian election interference while the House Ethics Committee investigated him for illegally disclosing classified information. Nunes was ultimately exonerated.
Two of the White House aides who showed the documents to Nunes were given significant new jobs this week. One of them, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, was fired after the Nunes scandal by H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national-security adviser at the time. This week, Cohen-Watnik was appointed as the Pentagon’s acting Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. The other, Michael Ellis, was installed as a legal counsel to the National Security Agency, which oversees a worldwide surveillance and intelligence-gathering network. As my colleague Jonathan Blitzer reported, Trump made similar moves in the Department of Homeland Security, ousting two high-ranking officials. A former senior national-security official said, “It’s a purging of the agencies of anyone who isn’t one-hundred-per-cent loyal, and who isn’t willing to do whatever the President wants, no matter how corrupt.”
This week’s personnel changes have inspired concerns, inside and outside the government, that Trump will order a large-scale release of classified material that he believes will benefit him politically—but which could damage America’s relationships with its allies and hinder intelligence gathering. The former senior national-security official said that Trump’s principal goal is to release a trove of intelligence that he believes could disprove suspicions he worked with Russian agents during the 2016 election—or, despite the unanimous findings of America’s intelligence agencies, could disprove that Russia interfered at all. Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., has vigorously opposed declassifying the material, arguing that it could cause severe harm to U.S. allies, and to agents working on behalf of American intelligence. Trump wanted to fire Haspel to clear the way for the declassifications, but so far has held off.
With some ten weeks remaining before Trump’s Administration comes to an end, it remains possible that he will remove Haspel, along with Christopher Wray, the head of the F.B.I. The senior congressional aide told me, “I think we’re going to see more firings of professional people and more stooges put in their places.” The Administration official said that many people around the President are hoping he will simply take a break. But the official thought that Trump would step down on January 20th, even if he does not concede. “He’s not going to barricade himself in the White House,” the official said. “He’ll go.”