It was the week before Christmas when turmoil was let loose in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump delivered a double shocker: US soldiers would withdraw completely from Syria over the next 2-4 months and their numbers in Afghanistan would be cut to half their present strength of 14,500 troops.
According to a report in The Times of London, Trump went beyond script in deciding this course of action during a phone conversation with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Noting that the Islamic State (IS) had been 99% defeated, Erdogan reminded Trump of his statement that the only reason for the US presence in Syria was to defeat it.
The Syrian decision was unsurprisingly announced in a tweet: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there”. The decision to drastically scale back military presence in Afghanistan quickly followed.
We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
The twin announcements caused consternation in Trump’s cabinet, Washington and among US allies. Defence secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat IS, resigned in protest. Yet, Trump’s erratic decision-making style notwithstanding, the decisions fulfil his campaign promises. The hostile reactions are symptomatic of the crisis afflicting the leadership of liberal democracies. The shock and horror of a politician doing what he promised!
They also validate Barack Obama’s complaint about the Washington ‘playbook’of militarised responses to foreign crises. According to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, in the 192-year period (1798–1989), force was used a total of 216 times, or 1.1 times per year on average. In the 25-year period after the end of the Cold War, the US deployed forces abroad on 152 occasions, for an annual average of 6.1; that is, more than five times as frequently than ever before in its history.
Neither George W. Bush nor Obama were able to provide satisfactory answers to three critical questions. Why are Americans in Afghanistan? What interests justify US sacrifices? How will the war end? A 2011 analysis by James Joyner noted that the US “has found itself in a seemingly endless series of wars over the past two decades. Despite frequent opposition by the party not controlling the presidency and often that of the American public, the foreign policy elite operates on a consensus that routinely leads to the use of military power to solve international crises.”
Ex-US army officer Joe Quinn, veteran of three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, comments that for 17 years, “we’ve tried everything: a light footprint, a big footprint, conventional war, counterinsurgency, counter-corruption, surges, drawdowns.” After an Afghan policeman manning a checkpoint demanded money from him at gunpoint, he concluded that $68 billion spent on Afghan forces had not bought “the essential ingredients of a fighting force: loyalty, courage and integrity.”
Returning home and holding his infant son in his arms, Quinn writes: “I feel selfish because there was a father who came home from war 17 years ago to hold his child in his arms, and now that child is going off to fight in the same war.”
That is the human cost, to Americans, of permanent war.
The chorus of criticism can be distilled into four core arguments.
First, a precipitous withdrawal will destabilise the region.
Newsflash: withdrawal after 17 years of sustained fighting is not precipitous. Serial US interventions have left the entire region – from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa – bleeding, broken and dysfunctional: dystopias in a state of permanent foment. Stripped of sophistry, the essence of this argument is: we must stay, because after 17 years of occupation we are at a standstill. Failure becomes a self-validating strategy for an indefinite commitment to continued failure.
By the end of 2018, while demoralised and corrupt Afghanistan forces were deserting in large numbers, the Taliban had regrouped, become more tactically savvy with each passing year and controlled large swathes of territory by day and even more by night. The US military presence has become the problem; exit may help to re-establish new local and regional equilibria.
Second, the war on terror is not finished.
Newsflash: during the long war on terror since 9/11 (four times longer already than the time it took to defeat Hitler), the US has managed to create and motivate more terrorists than it has killed and captured, by several factor-fold. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya etc., are the primary incubators and breeding grounds for ever more fanatical and ruthless jihadists spewing hatred for America and Americans. The US has neither the expertise, capacity nor willpower for successful nation-building in such hostile environments.
Third, US withdrawal will ensure the triumph of Iran and Russia.
Mark Twain is said to have remarked, perhaps apocryphally, that God created war so Americans can learn geography. Critics should consult a map. Iran is a regional neighbour, Russia’s borders are adjacent, and the US is separated by an ocean. If Russia wants to own the Syrian war and return to the Afghanistan graveyard of empires, Washington should be overflowing with the milk of schadenfreude.
The spread of Russian and Iranian sway over Syria and Afghanistan is not a national security threat to the US. Freed of these distractions, the US can more sharply focus on China and Russia as Asian and European strategic rivals. Saudi Arabia, not Iran, is the biggest enabler of Islamic fundamentalism.
Fourth, US withdrawal will leave Israel exposed to its deadly enemies.
Final newsflash: Israel is the most formidable and the only nuclear military power in the whole region.
Of course, we could have had the following as the alternative scenario. Trump is urged to leave the troops there for another six months, then another… as his second term nears completion, citizens ask why exactly the US troops have been there for another decade and why he broke his election promise.
The generals stare at him with a blank expression: “Mr President, we do military strategy, not politics. By the way, Sir, we need just another six months to finish the job.”
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, is emeritus professor at the Australian National University. His most recent book is The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2017).