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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Trump's visit to MacDill comes amid high foreign policy drama



LIVE BLOG: Updates from President Donald Trump's visit to MacDill

TAMPA — President Donald Trump on Monday will visit the locus of the fight on terrorism, MacDill Air Force Base, as he tries to reset a tumultuous first two weeks in office amid new controversy over his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump, who will be joined in Tampa by Gov. Rick Scott, will arrive after a weekend at his Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago, his first visit to Florida as president. There, he was met with several thousand protesters, and a crowd is anticipated in Tampa today.

In an interview Sunday, the president again used a conciliatory tone toward Putin, suggesting if he was a "killer," there were Americans like him, a comment that brought rebukes from top Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio. "When has a Democratic political (activist) been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa?" Rubio asked on Twitter.

Other top Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell expressed similar angst.

In Washington, Trump's immigration ban remains in flux following a rapid series of legal actions. His foreign policy continues to confuse and concern, as the latest Russia comments show. He has sent mixed signals to Israel and Iran and was hostile toward the Australians.

Trump’s trip to MacDill, one of the earliest such visits by any new president, takes him to the epicenter of planning for two of his most important national security challenges. The fight against the so-called Islamic State jihadi group and the increasing tensions with Iran.MacDill is home to two of the military’s most important commands.

U.S. Central Command oversees American military efforts in a 20-nation region stretching east from Egypt to Kazakhstan and includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, nuclear-armed Pakistan and the Gulf States.

U.S. Special Operations Command coordinates the global war on terror and provides trained and equipped commandos to headquarters like CentCom.

In addition, Special Operations Command Central, a lower-level command also headquartered at MacDill, controls commando efforts in the region.

Indications are the commandos - SEALs, Army Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers, and Air Force and Marine special operators will continue to play a leading role under Trump.

Trump’s visit comes just days after National Security Advisor Michael Flynn announced that Iran was “on notice” for their ballistic missile tests and an attack on a Saudi naval vessel by anti-government rebels, knowns as the Houthis, that it backs.

A recent raid by Navy SEALs against an al-Qaida stronghold in Yemen was the first known ground assault in that country by U.S. forces since 2014 and marked the first such mission given final approval by Trump.

Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens was killed, three others were wounded, a $75 million aircraft had to be destroyed and several civilians, including the 8-year-old daughter of AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki, were killed.  

And while the raid was against al-Qaida, some are wondering whether it also marks an increase in U.S. commitment to proxy war against Iran. American refueling jets are already assisting a bloody Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis.

Any military response against Iran would be developed at CentCom before ultimate approval by the White House. Last week, after Flynn’s comment, CentCom officials told the Tampa Bay Times that they hadn’t been asked for any plans for a military response against Iran.

Meanwhile, Trump’s executive order placing a temporary halt to visas and immigration from seven Muslim majority nations has roiled allies at a time when Iraqi forces are engaged in a bloody battle to retake Mosul and Syrian allies are getting ready for an assault on Raqqa, Islamic State’s putative capital.

The visit to MacDill will give Trump a chance to meet with some of the members of CentCom’s international coalition, a group of 50-plus nations formed in 2002 for Afghanistan war. Many of those nations are also involved in a second coalition, formed to take on the battle against Islamic State.

While the Trump administration has increased pressure on Iran and China, it has said little about the future of Afghanistan, the nation’s longest war where 8,400 U.S. troops, and many thousands more contractors are still stationed.

The Afghan National Security Forces have made progress, however, the Taliban has been resurgent, now controlling more than 40 percent of the nation while friendly troops have sustained a high rate of casualties.

To date, Trump has given little indication about his plans for the future of Afghanistan, where U.S. and Afghan commanders say the ANSF needs more time and training to be fully capable.

The trip will also give Trump, whose administration has lurched from one public relations crisis to another, some positive optics as he sits down not just with top military commanders, but also with enlisted troops likely to be enthusiastic about seeing the new commander in chief.

[Last modified: Monday, February 6, 2017 8:15am]


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