The outgoing president reportedly asked for options on bombing Iran as administration eyes last chance to achieve objectives
By Julian Borger in Washington
Fears that Donald Trump might try to wreak havoc on the world stage in his final, desperate, weeks in office appear to have been well-founded, after he reportedly asked for options on bombing Iran.
A report in the New York Times said Trump was advised against strikes on Iranian nuclear sites by senior officials warning of the risk of triggering a major conflict. But it added that the president may not have entirely given up on the idea of staging attacks on Iran or its allies and proxies in the region.
On the same day, Trump’s newly installed defence secretary, Christopher Miller, confirmed that the US would draw down its military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 troops in each country, shrugging off concerns that an abrupt withdrawal in Afghanistan could derail peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban by convincing the rebels they could win without a deal.
A defence department inspector general report on Tuesday said it was “unclear” whether the Taliban were violating a separate deal it made with the US in February.
The announcement of the withdrawal, which did not appear to have been coordinated with US allies in Afghanistan, drew a rebuke from the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who normally avoids criticising member states, especially the most powerful.
Stoltenberg warned Afghanistan could once again become “a platform for international terrorists” in the event of hasty departure, and declared: “the price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high.”
The developments come days after Trump removed Mark Esper, who as defence secretary had argued against a rapid departure from Afghanistan, and installed loyalists in the Pentagon and National Security Agency, with a record of backing aggressive action against Iran, or supporting a rapid extrication from Afghanistan.
Miller issued a message to Pentagon staff on Tuesday, with a warning not to try to resist new orders from the top. “Do your job,” Miller said. “Focus on your assignment.”
He stated his first goal was: “Bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
Miller did not define the “current war” but it was widely seen as a reference to the military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The new acting under secretary of defence for intelligence and security, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, installed in the Pentagon at the same time as Miller, has reportedly pushed for regime change in Iran, and for aggressive action against Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq.
The turmoil in foreign and defence policy comes at a time when Trump is refusing to accept election defeat and is preventing Joe Biden’s incoming team from receiving intelligence or policy briefings.
Former officials have suggested that Trump is aware he will eventually have to leave office and is considering another run at the presidency in 2024. To that end, he is looking at last-minute options for fulfilling campaign promises he can point to, to build a narrative that he ran a successful administration that was removed by a rigged election.
“This will be his version of the Lost Cause,” a former official from the Trump White House said, referring to attempts after the civil war to romanticise the Confederacy. “He can go out in a blaze of glory, and the stab in the back theory gets strengthened because he can point to all the things that he did.”
On Tuesday’s report that Trump’s aides had persuaded him against carrying out strikes on Iran, Malley said: “I’m not sure this is the end of the story. There may be a covert operation that would be less risky than what the president might have been talking about … And unlike in the years past, he would not have to carry the consequences.”