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Former National Security Officials Worry What Trump Could Do In Iran And Afghanistan

Christopher Miller, pictured on Sept. 24, became acting defense secretary after President Trump fired Mark Esper. Miller is perceived as more loyal to Trump than Esper.
Joshua Roberts
Pool/Getty Images
Christopher Miller, pictured on Sept. 24, became acting defense secretary after President Trump fired Mark Esper. Miller is perceived as more loyal to Trump than Esper.

After a purge at the Pentagon, former national security officials are worried about the fallout if President Trump were to launch an unprovoked military action against Iran or make big changes in Afghanistan in his waning days in office.

That's in addition to the ways that President Trump's refusal to concede and to give President-elect Biden access to intelligence materials are already damaging national security.

"The scenario most national security people are worried about is a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities," says Kori Schake, who served on George W. Bush's National Security Council and also in senior posts at the Pentagon and the State Department. "Because the 'maximum pressure' campaign that has been the signature of Trump administration foreign policy has very little positive result."

Four senior officials at the Pentagon, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, were fired or resigned on Monday and Tuesday. Trump loyalists took their place. Two senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security were forced to resign this week as well.

Speaking to Mary Louise Kelly on All Things Considered, Schake says "a number of serious national security people are really worried" that Trump's purge "is putting malleable people in place in order to end his administration with a bang."

Schake cautions that she's skeptical herself that an attack on Iran will happen, mainly because it would require coordination with U.S. allies who would oppose it.

Nicholas Burns, who worked in various jobs including under secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration and on the National Security Council for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton, agrees that foreign policy experts are worried about a preemptive Iran strike.

Another fear in the national security community is a rapid withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, he tells All Things Considered.

"President Trump might try to accelerate the Afghan peace talks, to end the war there, and therefore to withdraw the American military forces in such a way that would be disadvantageous to the Afghan government," Burns says. "I mean, the fear is that President Trump won't be tough minded enough in negotiating with the Taliban."

Top generals and civilians have argued that the situation is currently too volatile to leave Afghanistan quickly.

Both of those scenarios — Iran and Afghanistan — "would have a direct impact on our national security a year from now, two years from now, and certainly have an impact on President-elect Biden's team as they come in in early 2021," Burns says.

Listen to the full audio interview with Kori Schake and Nicholas Burns at the audio link above.

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James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.