Donald Trump likes to suggest he has got the back of US soldiers battling America’s foes around the world. It was a big theme of his 2016 campaign and his West Point speech earlier this month. So great was his boundless care for America’s fighting men and women, he said, that he would halt the endless, costly foreign wars prosecuted by his predecessors – and bring them home.
Recent reports that Trump ignored an official intelligence finding warning that a covert Russian GRU military unit had placed bounties on the heads of American and British soldiers in Afghanistan give the lie to that particularly cynical piece of bluster.
Trump does not deny such an intelligence finding was presented in February, or possibly even earlier. When asked why he had not acted on it to save lives, the White House first claimed the intelligence was weak and inconclusive. When that was rebutted, Trump claimed he was not told about it. So which is it?
Many suspect Trump was intent on appeasing Vladimir Putin, his sinister chum in the Kremlin, who the former British MI6 spy Christopher Steele alleges has some kind of personal or financial hold on the president . Maybe it’s simpler: he just wasn’t paying attention when his NSC intelligence officers briefed him.
Either way, Trump failed in his duty as commander-in-chief to protect military personnel serving their country in Afghanistan, and who were placed in harm’s way in a conflict that, despite his promises, he has failed to end.
It’s well known that Trump never personally served in the military at all, having dodged the Vietnam era draft with some special pleading about bone spurs in his feet. It’s also the case that the Afghan scandal is by no means the first time he has let America’s soldiers down.
When Trump decided on a whim last year to pull American ground forces out of north-eastern Syria, where they were leading the anti-Isis counter-terrorism campaign, he gave no thought to the safety of troops suddenly left exposed and out in the open. He gave no thought to the consequences for America’s loyal Kurdish allies or, for example, British special forces deployed alongside in the desert.
Trump claimed to have pulled off a great strategic masterstroke. In fact, he was once again submitting to the will of Putin, the main backer of Syria’s dictatorship, who wanted, and subsequently got, the US out of the way. Trump also cravenly caved in to another fellow bully, Turkey’s bellicose leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was pursuing a vendetta against the Kurds.
It was no thanks to Trump that US forces avoided significant losses during that chaotic, still incomplete withdrawal. Earlier this year, however, they were not so lucky. Infuriated by Trump’s reckless assassination of the Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani, Tehran’s leaders struck back in January, launching missiles at US bases in Iraq.
Trump initially claimed that the Iranian strikes had not killed or injured any US personnel. Apparently scared of being blamed for causing an all-out war, Trump played down the attack, saying the soldiers “had headaches and a couple of other things”. In truth, the Pentagon later confirmed, 50 service-people were hurt, with some suffering potentially life-changing traumatic brain injuries. The Veterans of Foreign Wars are still waiting for the presidential apology they subsequently demanded.
Trump’s cavalier attitude to armed forces’ lives, constitutional duties and honorable traditions was also seen in his neglectful response to the Covid-19 emergency that struck the crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. It was seen in his Bible stunt in Lafayette Square during the George Floyd protests, when he tried to co-opt the military. And seen again at West Point this month, when he used cadets as extras in his re-election bid.
Most lethal of all, of course, is Trump’s gross mishandling of the “war” on the pandemic on the home front, which has contributed directly and indirectly to the loss of more than 125,000 civilian lives.
Trump’s failure to act in response to Russia’s Afghan bounty plot confirmed what was already plain to see. Trump uses the US military, just as he uses almost everyone else, as a disposable prop in his own ongoing, self-glorifying, slightly unhinged personal narrative of superior greatness.
For Trump, Trump always comes first, no matter who dies.