Former Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview Thursday that he would keep an enduring U.S. troop presence in the Middle East if elected president.
“These ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State],” Biden told military newspaper Stars and Stripes in a phone interview.
Biden supports a “small U.S. military footprint” whose primary mission would be to facilitate special operations against the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria (ISIS), or other terrorist organizations, according to the paper.
Biden said there should be a “maximum” of 1,500 to 2,000 on the ground, but did not specify where he meant.
Trump has stated his goal is to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bring home all U.S. troops.
The Trump administration recently announced it was bringing home 2,200 U.S. troops from Iraq in September, bringing down the troop presence from 5,200 to 3,000. He has already cut the U.S. troop presence in Syria from several thousand to 500.
In addition, President Trump has begun a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, from the 8,600 when he first came in, to 4,500 by November. His plan is to reduce to zero troops if conditions permit.
Biden told Stars and Stripes that he cannot promise a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East in the near future.
He said U.S. forces must be able to coordinate with allies to train and lead to “take out terrorist groups who are going to continue to emerge.”
Biden has said he is open to cutting the military’s budget, but told Stars and Stripes that he does not foresee “major reductions.”
During the Obama administration, the Pentagon’s budget was slashed by $500 billion over ten years, and cut further to avoid sequestration — automatic defense cuts of $500 billion during the same period.
Military combat readiness and procurement suffered during that time, as well as needed maintenance for equipment. Troops also saw some cuts in benefits and pay raises below inflation.
“I don’t think [budget cuts] are inevitable, but we need priorities in the budget,” Biden told the paper. Biden said those priorities included unmanned capacity, cyber, and information technology.
Democrats have called for defunding the Pentagon to spend on domestic priorities.
Biden said if he becomes president, he would press for an “inclusive military.” He said transgender people should be able to openly serve in the military.
The Trump administration’s policy allows transgender service members to serve openly as well, but prohibits service members who wish to transition medically from one sex to another, citing operational and medical risks.
Biden also vowed to better equip the National Guard, which Democrats have criticized Trump for using to quell civil unrest during violent rioting.
Biden said the largest readiness issue facing the military is America’s “strained relationship with NATO.”
“They’re worried as hell about our failure to confront Russia diplomatically or other ways, and worried about ‘America First’ meaning ‘America Alone,'” he said.
Under pressure from Trump, NATO members have increased their defense spending by $150 billion and will station troops further east, closer to Russia.
But Biden said, “First thing I’m going to have to do, and I’m not joking: if elected I’m going to have to get on the phone with the heads of state and say America’s back, you can count on us.”