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BOST AIRFIELD, Afghanistan—On a holiday visit to American troops overseas, Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, was asked by a Marine about President Trump’s orders to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan.
What, the Marine wanted to know, did the orders mean for those on combat deployments?
“That’s a really good question,” the commandant said. “And the honest answer is I have no idea.”
At every stop on his tour, Gen. Neller has faced questions about what the recent drawdown orders and the resignation of Defense SecretaryJim Mattis mean for Marines and for the broader U.S. military strategy in the Middle East.
The questions have come from Marines bundled in parkas while training in Norway as well as those sweating in the heat of Afghanistan, who are eager to know how the turmoil in Washington affects them.
“Are your families asking if you’re leaving?” he questioned a group of Marines in Helmand province. Many nodded yes.
“You’re not leaving,” he deadpanned, to laughs from troops midway through a months-long deployment.
At this point, commanders regardless of their rank have few details on Mr. Trump’s plans—with no timelines, hard numbers or orders to Pentagon brass about the matter. During the trip, Gen. Neller has worked to quash scuttlebutt and motivate troops, warning them to avoid complacency and homesickness.
The Marines have laughed with their leader and his honesty, but it belied a frustration among officers and personnel about the lack of details from Washington: If Gen. Neller, one of the highest-ranking officers in the American military doesn’t know what’s happening, who does?
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer joined Gen. Neller in Afghanistan for a leg of the holiday visit and in an interview said he had received no order from the White House or Pentagon on drawing down troops.
“Nothing formal, just tweets,” he said Saturday, adding that he might be in the dark because he’s been on the road for three days.
The head of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin Miller, hadn’t been issued orders about the drawdown, according to multiple officers familiar with the matter. Morning intelligence briefings for days had focused on publicly available news stories because no official information was available internally.
“I don’t think anybody really knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Gen. Neller told one gathering of Marines, on Friday. “I’ve read the same stuff in the newspaper you did, I have a little more knowledge than that, but not a whole lot more.”
Mr. Trump last week tweeted that Islamic State in Syria had been defeated and ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops there. A day later, officials said he also had ordered the start of a withdrawal of approximately 7,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, about half the U.S. troops in the country.
In an interview Friday, the Marine Corps’ top officer said he wasn’t in a position to comment on the announced plans for troop withdrawals but said “the best military advice was offered and a decision was made.”
“I don’t make policy, I execute orders,” he added, not specifying what advice was given.
He likewise had little to say about Mr. Mattis’ resignation.
“He wrote a letter, I’m not going to comment on it,” Gen. Neller said. “I understand and respect his decision.”
Gen. Neller said the defense secretary isn’t scheduled to step down until late February, which can allow time for a successor to be appointed and confirmed by the Senate, and for adequate continuity at the top of the department.
At Bagram Air Field in northern Afghanistan, Gen. Neller spoke to a relatively small contingent of approximately 60 U.S. Marines, a fraction of the estimated 14,000 U.S. troops in the country. The Marines here advise, train and support hundreds of soldiers from the country of Georgia, who provide base security.
They also illustrate the complexity of troop withdrawals. While the few dozen Marines here seem like they might be able to be sent home with relative ease, the reality is more complicated.
The more than 500 Georgians here don’t just stand guard, but conduct routine patrols around the base, and need Marines or other U.S. troops to call in air support if they find themselves under attack. The U.S. relationship with the Georgian forces is part of a broader bilateral relationship. An abrupt U.S. pullout could sour an alliance with strategic repercussions as the U.S. faces down an ever-more aggressive Russia.
Maj. Richard Bates, the Marine contingent’s officer in charge, said that all they have heard about the drawdown has come from media reports.
“It was a surprise, but I’m sure it was a surprise for the guys who withdrew from OIF,” he said referring to the abrupt announcement by then-President Barack Obama in 2011 that most U.S. troops would leave Iraq and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Georgian troops have likewise had no word on what to expect, according to a person familiar with the matter.
For many, a withdrawal could mean a welcome end of a long overseas deployment. Marines across Afghanistan said family members have asked them when they’re coming home.
Maj. Bates said the word of Mr. Mattis’ resignation was the bigger news to him, seeing that the defense secretary, a retired Marine general, is held in high esteem by his fellow service members.
“His resignation is more devastating than the troop drawdown,” Maj. Bates said. “It’s going to be hard to fill those shoes.”