Trump wants to keep US troops in Iraq to 'be able to watch' Iran

Edward Helmore in New York
Asked if he wanted to strike Iran, Donald Trump said: ‘No, because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch.’ Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump wants to keep US troops in Iraq, in order to “watch” Iran.

The president made the comment in an interview given to CBS’ Face the Nation because the network is this year’s Super Bowl broadcaster. Despite the invasion of Iraq being “one of the greatest mistakes … that our country has ever made”, he said, he wanted to maintain a military presence.

Asked if he wanted to strike Iran, Trump said: “No, because I want to be able to watch Iran. All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up.”

He 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 was answering questions about his commitment to reduce the US military presence in the Middle East, which has led to confusion and controversy over whether he will withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and when. He also risked reopening a damaging split with his own intelligence chiefs, who have said Iran is abiding by the nuclear deal from which he withdrew.

My intelligence people, if they said in fact that Iran is a wonderful kindergarten, I disagree with them 100%

Donald Trump

“I disagree with them,” Trump said, justifying his position with reference to mistakes made regarding Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities before the Iraq war.

“Guess what?” he said. “Those intel people didn’t know what the hell they were doing, and they got us tied up in a war that we should have never been in. And we’ve spent $7tn in the Middle East and we have lost lives.”

Since running for president, Trump has consistently claimed always to have opposed the Iraq war. In fact, in September 2002 he told the radio host Howard Stern he was in favour of intervention.

Trump’s remarks to CBS came days after he dismissed his own “intelligence people” as “extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran” and said they should “go back to school!”

“I am going to trust the intelligence that I’m putting there,” he told CBS, “but I will say this: my intelligence people, if they said in fact that Iran is a wonderful kindergarten, I disagree with them 100%. It is a vicious country that kills many people.”

He also claimed that after he withdrew from the “horrible” nuclear deal, “all of a sudden Iran became a different country. They became – very rapidly – right now they’re a country that’s in big financial trouble.”

The president continued to berate Barack Obama over his policy on Syria, a country that unlike Iraq, Trump said the US “never had”.

“We never had Syria because President Obama never wanted to violate the red line in the sand,” he said, referring to the failure to carry out a threat to respond to chemical weapons use by President Bashar al-Assad in the long civil war.

“When he did that,” Trump said, “he showed tremendous weakness”.

Trump’s order to withdraw 2,000 US troops from Syria has caused controversy over whether, as he claims, Islamic State forces have been defeated, and over the apparent abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies. Trump’s rebuke of his intelligence chief was in part based on their public assessment that Isis has not been beaten.

The decision to maintain a presence in Iraq, Trump told CBS, would mean the US could strike quickly against Isis or al-Qaida.

“We’ll come back if we have to,” he said. “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. I mean I was there recently, and I couldn’t believe the money that was spent on these massive runways. And these –I’ve rarely seen anything like it. And it’s there. And we’ll be there.”

Asked when he would withdraw from Syria, the president said he would first move troops to Iraq and ultimately bring them home.

“We have to protect Israel,” he said. “We have to protect other things that we have. But we’re – yeah, they’ll be coming back in a matter of time. Look, we’re protecting the world. We’re spending more money than anybody’s ever spent in history, by a lot.”

Claiming the US has spent $50bn a year in Afghanistan over five years, Trump said he was prepared to maintain an intelligence presence there.

“If I see nests forming, I’ll do something about it,” he said.

The president also dismissed Republicans in Congress who have said they do not agree with his policy.

“It’s time,” he said, of Afghanistan. “We’ve been fighting for 19 years. Somebody said you were precipitously bringing to – precipitously? We’ve been there for 19 years. I want to fight. I want to win, and we want to bring our great troops back home.”

US troops led the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, a little over 17 years ago.

Asked about reported progress in talks with the Taliban, Trump said he would “see what happens … they want peace. They’re tired. Everybody’s tired. We’d like to have – I don’t like endless wars. This war. What we’re doing has got to stop at some point.”

Challenged by Brennan that he was repeating the mistake he has accused Obama of making, of broadcasting his moves to America’s enemies, Trump said: “I’m not telegraphing anything. No, no, no. There’s a difference.”

Trump also repeated a claim made to the New York Times this week, that he asked defense secretary Jim Mattis to resign. The retired Marines general quit in December with a stinging resignation letter that criticised Trump’s foreign policy. It was reported at the time that it was his own decision.