Updated at 3:01 p.m. ET
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump traveled to Iraq to visit U.S. troops the day after Christmas, a surprise trip the president had been hinting at for some time.
The Trumps’ arrival at al Asad Air Base, in Western Iraq, followed the president’s orders to pull back on U.S. troop deployments that have come under intense scrutiny.
The trip was announced on Twitter by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It’s the president’s first such trip since taking office nearly two years ago.
Al Asad was an Iraqi regime air base until the 2003 U.S. invasion, when it became a centerpiece of U.S. Marine Corps and coalition operations in Anbar Province.
The base continues to host smaller detachments of American forces supporting the Iraqi government’s war against the Islamic State as well as American operations in Syria.
Press photos showed the president and first lady posing for photos with uniformed personnel, President Trump addressing an audience and the president and first lady meeting with commanders.
U.S. troops stationed in Iraq are there primarily to help Iraqi forces stabilize the country after its years-long battle against the Islamic State. U.S. troops numbered about 5,200 as of Oct. 31.
As commander in chief, Trump has been an outspoken promoter of America’s armed forces and veterans but has expressed opposition to the very operations he now oversees.
In an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday in November, Trump was asked why he hasn’t visited the troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Well, I think you will see that happen. There are things that are being planned. We don’t want to talk about it because of — obviously because of security reasons and everything else. But there are things that are planned. As you know, I was very much opposed to the war in Iraq. I think it was a tremendous mistake, should have never happened,” Trump said before explaining that he had an “unbelievable busy schedule.”
Trump’s claim to have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning was a key part of his campaign pitch, proof he suggested of his foreign policy instincts, even if he lacked experience. But numerous fact checks found no proof of the early and vocal opposition to the war that Trump has claimed.
Trump’s skepticism of foreign entanglements, however, is real. He recently ordered a draw down of several thousand troops in Afghanistan and ordered all troops withdrawn from Syria, a move that caused an immediate and forceful backlash.
“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump announced on Twitter a week ago.
This decision appears to have been the final straw for Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned in protest the next day. Late last week Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, also resigned. Trump went after McGurk on Twitter and announced Mattis would be leaving two months ahead of schedule, replaced by his deputy on an interim basis.
Critics, including many congressional Republicans, said Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw troops would alienate and endanger U.S. allies and embolden ISIS, Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime. President Trump rejected that criticism, tweeting: “If anybody but your favorite President, Donald J. Trump, announced that, after decimating ISIS in Syria, we were going to bring our troops back home (happy & healthy), that person would be the most popular hero in America,” Trump tweeted. “With me, hit hard instead by the Fake News Media. Crazy!”
While it is true that ISIS has lost control of the wide swaths of territory it once held in Syria and Iraq – the so-called caliphate – proclamations of the group’s total defeat are premature, officials inside and outside the administration have said.
Earlier this month, McGurk said it would be “reckless” to consider ISIS defeated and unwise to bring American forces home.
“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,” McGurk told reporters on Dec. 11.
Similarly, a Department of Defense Inspector General’s report from last month described complicated conditions on the ground in Syria and Iraq, with ISIS operating an insurgency in both countries and maintaining some of the bureaucratic structures of the caliphate it temporarily formed.
“According to the Department of Defense (DoD), ISIS has lost control of all the territory it once controlled in Iraq, and remains in control only of an estimated 1 percent of territory it once held in Syria. However, both the DoD and a United Nations (UN) Security Council monitoring committee report stated that an effective clandestine ISIS organization appears to be taking hold in both countries.
“The DoD reported to the DoD Office of Inspector General (OIG) that ISIS’s retention of desert terrain along the Iraq-Syria border bolsters its ability to operate underground in Syria and to plan and carry out attacks against both U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast and against pro-Syrian regime forces elsewhere.3 Moreover, the UN committee report and the DoD stated that at least some of ISIS’s bureaucratic structures remained intact, and ISIS continued to derive revenue from multiple sources, including drug trafficking, extortion, and cash reserves.4 The report also said that a lower than expected outflow of foreign ISIS fighters suggested that many of them were hiding in sympathetic local communities in Iraq and Syria.”
NPR’s Jane Arraf reported earlier this month from an area of Iraq where the Iraqi military, working with the U.S. and other coalition partners, is working to flush out what remains of ISIS.
“ISIS has made a comeback in the mountains and along the border with where Iraqi forces have recently sent thousands of soldiers. An entire division — more than 10,000 soldiers — are deployed now near the Syrian border, along with the militias that are part of Iraqi security forces,” she reported. Her story concluded that “ISIS has been driven out of the cities, but the battle isn’t quite over yet.”
In Iraq, the country’s security forces are “years, if not decades” away from ending their “reliance on Coalition assistance,” according to the inspector general’s report. “The DoD reported to the DoD OIG that Iraq’s security forces continued to exhibit systemic weaknesses this quarter, including poor intelligence fusion, operational insecurity, ongoing corruption, and overly centralized leadership, among other problems.”
Former President Barack Obama made one trip to Iraq during his presidency and four trips to Afghanistan. Former President George W. Bush visited Iraq four times and Afghanistan twice.