Five challenges awaiting Mattis’s successor

Patrick Shanahan, who will become acting Defense secretary on Jan. 1, will immediately find himself with a full plate of challenges.

The issues that led to Defense Secretary James Mattis’s resignation — troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan — will still be fresh, with several questions about what comes next for Shanahan to answer.

{mosads}Other geopolitical hotspots and domestic issues alike threaten to flare up shortly after Shanahan takes the reins. And there’s always the possibility of something unexpected emerging from President Trump or a volatile world scene.

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who has spent his 17 months as deputy Defense secretary focused on the business side of the Pentagon, will also have to prove himself to Congress, in particular Democrats who are taking over the House.

Trump on Wednesday told reporters during his visit to Iraq that Shanahan “could be there for a long time.”

In the short-term, though, here are five immediate challenges the next Defense secretary will face.



As acting secretary, one of the first questions Shanahan will face is how to carry out President Trump’s order to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.

When Trump announced his decision, the White House had no answers on a timeline for the withdrawal and whether the military would continue airstrikes into Syria. Officials told reporters the Pentagon was working on those plans.

Those decisions will be made as U.S. troops and the local forces they have partnered with continue to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. As recently as Tuesday, the U.S. military announced airstrikes and coordinated attacks against the terrorist group, which the statement described as “a very real threat to the long-term stability in this region.”

Trump, who at first declared victory against the terror group, has since said others, including Turkey, Russia, Iran and Syria, can deal with the remaining pockets of ISIS. But U.S. lawmakers and military officials are dubious, at best, of allowing that, noting those countries have motives outside of U.S. interests.

Lawmakers also want to know how Kurdish forces that have been receiving support from the U.S. military will be protected once American troops leave. Turkey, which considers the Kurds terrorists, has threatened to launch a new assault against those forces.

And lawmakers have also been asking what will happen to the hundreds of foreign ISIS fighters being detained by the Kurds. Mattis has been trying to convince their home countries to take them back for prosecution, with little success.



Similar to Syria, the Pentagon and its chief will be tasked with figuring out how to carry out a drawdown military leadership is advising against.

The White House and the Pentagon have not confirmed that a drawdown is happening, but several reports the same day as Mattis’s resignation said Trump is planning to halve the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan.

Even before those reports, lawmakers and regional analysts expressed concern that Trump’s Syria decision portended a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump wanted to get out last year but was convinced to stay by Mattis and others.

The United States currently has about 14,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan on a dual mission of training, advising and assisting Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban and conducting counterterrorism missions against groups such as ISIS.

The goal against the Taliban is to pressure them to the negotiating table. A recent Pentagon report to Congress, released the same day as Mattis’s resignation, advised that “the key to success remains sustained military pressure against the Taliban.”

In addition to decisions about how to drawdown troops with minimal risk, Shanahan will likely hear from U.S. allies looking for guidance. Mattis was instrumental in convincing members of the NATO coalition in Afghanistan to redouble their commitments on the basis that the United States itself was making a long-term effort.


North Korea

Opponents of drawing down troops from Syria and Afghanistan say that now other countries such as North Korea will try to test Trump’s resolve.

They point to North Korea’s statement the day after Trump’s Syria announcement in which the nation said the U.S. must remove its “nuclear threat” from the Korean Peninsula before Pyongyang will denuclearize. 

While negotiations on a denuclearization deal have stalled, Trump has insisted he wants a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in early 2019.

“Christmas Eve briefing with my team working on North Korea – Progress being made,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!”

Any summit could leave Shanahan with new orders. After the first summit with Kim in June, Trump surprised the Pentagon by announcing a suspension in joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.

Shanahan will likely still have work to do on that order as well. The annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises typically start in March. Mattis has previously said those exercises would be “reorganized” but not canceled.


Border deployment

The deployment of U.S. troops to the southern border is authorized until Jan. 31.

But it has already been extended once as Trump remains frustrated that Congress will not approve funding for his proposed border wall and Shanahan could be asked to extend it again if that dynamic continues.

There is no indication of Trump changing course on the border. During the partial government shutdown over the border wall funding, Trump has dug in on his demands, saying the shutdown will last as long necessary and that he will do “whatever it takes” to get a wall.

“We need a wall,” Trump said Wednesday while visiting troops in Iraq. “We need safety for our country. Even from this standpoint. We have terrorists coming in through the southern border.”

The border deployment, which started in late October, was originally scheduled to end Dec. 15. By mid-November, military officials were talking about the deployment winding down, saying that the military’s tasks, which largely involved putting up barbed wire and setting up tents for border patrolmen, were nearly complete.

But in late November, the Department of Homeland Security asked the Pentagon to extend the mission.

Democrats have made clear they will prod Pentagon officials on the deployment when they have the House majority in January. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the presumptive next chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he thinks it’s a “misuse of our troops” designed to make people believe the migrant caravan is “an invasion.”


The defense budget

When it comes to the defense budget, Shanahan will be well-versed. His main job as deputy secretary has been, in his words, to “operationalize” the National Defense Strategy — in other words, make a budget based on the blueprint.

Trump has changed his mind several times already on how much he wants to request for defense spending in fiscal 2020. The original plan was for $733 billion. He then ordered a cut to $700 billion, arguing rising deficits demand spending cuts.

After lobbying from defense hawks and Mattis, Trump decided instead to increase the defense budget to $750 billion.

With the budget not set to be released until February, there’s still time for Trump to change his mind again.

Regardless of what number the president requests in February, it will be Shanahan’s job to sell it to Capitol Hill in budget hearings.

A number on the high end will require convincing Democrats who thought the $716 billion budget in fiscal 2019 was already too high.

A number on the low end will mean working on defense hawks who worry that a budget cut will reverse improvements in readiness after the past two years of budget increases.

Tags Adam Smith Donald Trump James Mattis Patrick Shanahan

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