President Donald Trump made clear in a television interview that he wants to reduce U.S. military engagement in Syria and Afghanistan, but said he was willing to keep a U.S. military base in Iraq so that Washington can keep a close eye on Iran.
“I don’t like endless wars,” Trump said in a CBS Face the Nation interview on February 3, after he surprised U.S. lawmakers and international allies last month by announcing he was withdrawing all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.
U.S. officials have said Trump was also in the “process of evaluating” whether to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan, where they have been since 2001.
The moves were criticized by members of his Republican Party and caused concern among the U.S. allies.
In the CBS interview, conducted on February 1, Trump said U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for nearly 19 years, and, while the outcome of ongoing peace talks with the Afghan Taliban remains to be seen, “They want peace. They’re tired. Everybody’s tired.”
The president said he planned to keep a small contingent of troops in Afghanistan for “real intelligence” purposes and said U.S. forces would return to that country if necessary.
“I’ll leave intelligence there and if I see nests forming, I’ll do something about it,” he said.
Critics have said that a vacuum left by the departure of U.S. troops from Syria, where they are assisting a Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance fighting against fighters of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and other forces, could result in a resurgence of the IS and Al-Qaeda in the war-torn country or neighboring Iraq.
But Trump told CBS that the United States could respond to developments in Syria from neighboring Iraq.
“We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly, and I’m not leaving. We have a base in Iraq and the base is a fantastic edifice,” he said.
Trump said the United States had spent ” a fortune on the Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq, and added: “We might as well keep it. One of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem.”
The president added: “We’re going to keep watching and we’re going to keep seeing and if there’s trouble, if somebody is looking to do nuclear weapons or other things, we’re going to know it before they do.”
Trump said that the U.S. troops in Syria were starting to come home, as they push out the “final remainder of the [IS] caliphate.”
Afterward, “they will be going to our base in Iraq, and ultimately, some will be coming home,” he added.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been high since Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and imposed crippling economic sanctions against Tehran last year.
Trump has looked to increase pressure on Iran to bring about what his administration has called a “change in behavior” regarding its weapons programs and its “destabilizing” activities in the region, accusations Tehran denies.