By Ruadhán Mac Cormaic
12 January 2019
e won the US presidential election on an anti-interventionist platform, promising to extricate the US military from “dumb wars” in the Middle East.
The biggest threat to the US came from China, he was convinced. Countering Beijing’s unchecked influence in its neighbourhood would require Washington to turn its attention to the Asia-Pacific region, and that would mean scaling back its presence in the Middle East, where its involvement was of dubious long-term value anyway.
In his first year in power, the president announced that he would reduce the number of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From now on, he made clear, the emphasis would be on “a more targeted approach” that focused on dismantling terrorist networks “without deploying large American armies”.
Instead of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, however, he ended up bowing to the advice of his generals and sent even more. First he doubled, then tripled, their number, before eventually drawing down to the level he had started out with.
All of the above quite accurately describes the arc of US military involvement in the Middle East under Donald Trump, but it’s actually drawn from the writings, the speeches – and the record – of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The two men could scarcely have more different views on their country’s role in the world, but on this issue, they wrestled with the same dilemmas, vacillated in similar ways and ended up with broadly comparable policies.
In other words, strategic confusion about the US’s role in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq is as old as US involvement in each of those conflicts.
Lesser Commented News
Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that he was withdrawing all 2,000 US troops from Syria shocked allies and rivals alike. That bombshell was followed just a few hours later by the news – less commented on but hugely significant in itself – that Trump was bringing home half of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan.
The precipitous pull-out from Syria – a decision taken without consulting US allies and against the advice of Trump’s own military advisers – is staggering in its recklessness.
Even if the timetable ends up being extended, as his national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo indicated this week, the damage is already done. US allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition know the White House is ready to cut loose. Iran, Russia and Turkey know they simply have to wait it out for the chance to extend their influence in Syria.
The Kurds, having fought and died alongside US troops in Syria for years, can see Trump is prepared to betray them. And the Pentagon and the rest of the security establishment in Washington will sense that their views count for nothing when an idea takes hold in Trump’s chaotic mind.
The cost of halving the troop contingent in Afghanistan – presumably a precursor to full withdrawal – is just as high. US officials recently began formal peace talks with the Taliban for the first time since the US intervention 17 years ago.
Washington believed that increased US military pressure – signalled by Trump’s reluctant decision to increase troop numbers last year – would push the Taliban into a peace settlement.
Now that the insurgents can see the US is preparing to leave, what incentive do they have to make any concessions? All they have to do now is sit tight and wait for the US soldiers to pack their bags.
Yet the chaotic manner in which Trump announced his draw-downs, and the dangerous speed with which he plans to bring troops home, obscures a bigger question: is he right on the substantive point?
Trump, like Obama, believes that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and that America long ago lost sight of its aims. It’s difficult to argue with that. The US has spent about a trillion dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, yet today the Taliban holds more territory than at any point since the war began 17 years ago.
US forces inflicted heavy territorial losses on Isis in Syria and Iraq, but Bashar al-Assad has largely suppressed the rebellion against him and the presence of US troops has hardly held back Russian or Iranian ambitions on the ground.
For the US, in Syria and in Afghanistan, the closest thing to victory is maintaining the status quo. And even though the human cost in US lives has been high – 2,300 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan – the annual casualty rate is relatively low because, in both countries, the US has shifted from leading operations to working through local forces.
That means there is little domestic clamour to bring home the troops.
“I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars that it is to begin them,” Obama said in 2014. The US knows it can’t stay in Afghanistan and Syria forever. It needs to start thinking hard about how to get out.