Pakistan Reader# 94, 20 December 2018
While the physical presence of the ISIS and its ability to carry out devastating attacks have declined substantially in Syria, the opposite has been happening within Afghanistan.D. Suba Chandran
Trump has a great ability in foreign policy making. When the world deplores a Trump decision as his worst, his new one makes the earlier one less problematique. He is a disaster in progress. Withdrawal or significant reversals of the American approaches under Trump to the Paris process on Climate Change, NAFTA, Iran nuclear deal and NATO should pale in front of his latest decision to cut the troops from Syria, followed by the same in Afghanistan.
One can agree with Trump’s tweet on US being the policeman: “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight...”
Trump is correct. It is not the job of the USA to be the policeman in the Middle East, or in any other parts of the world. But the problem is – since the World War -II, the US has assumed this mantle on its own. No one asked the US to do what did as a part of the Cold War in multiple regions, especially in the extended Middle East.
After a thorough muddling in domestic politics, promoting dictatorships at the cost of protecting democratic and liberal voices, arming the musclemen with political support and military supplies, the US has become a problem in the region. The White House cannot wakeup suddenly in 2018 and decide that it does not want to be a policeman.
The US should stay the course and ensure the collaterals that it has created in the last seven decades have been addressed. Trump as a President neither has the stomach nor the brain to stay the course. While a section within the US may still have the heart to do so, Trump does not.
Withdrawal of the American troops will create more problems for the future US administrations, and importantly affect the image of Washington. Consider the following implications of Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.
Setback to allies within Syria and Afghanistan
On the withdrawal from Syria, Trump’s tweet said: “Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there work. Time to come home & rebuild.”
But why did the US enter into Syria in the first place? And why did it stay back until December 2018?
If the objective of the American entry into Afghanistan was only to neutralize the al Qaeda network, it was achieved when they were chased from the Afghan caves into Pakistan’s tribal regions. Certainly, it should have got over when Osama bin Laden was killed in a night ride by the American troops within Pakistan in May 2011. Almost ten years after the 9/11, the number one enemy of the US was neutralised. Why did the US stationed its troops in Afghanistan post May 2011?
Even Trump agreed to a troops surge, after getting elected as the President. What were his objectives?
One of the primary objectives of the US in January 2018 in these two countries were to support and augment the local forces against the ISIS and Taliban, and ensure that the latter pose no threat either to the immediate region, and the rest.
Today, the Taliban and the ISIS are down. But have they not been neutralized. A hasty withdrawal will ensure that the Taliban and ISIS gets emboldened. Worse, the American allies in Syria and Afghanistan – the liberal Kurdish – the Syrian democratic forces and those non-Kurds who were against the ISIS within Syria – will be disappointed.
So will be the government and those moderates who have been fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Like the ISIS, the Afghan Taliban may have also ceded substantial part of the geography that it had commanded. However, unlike the ISIS, the Taliban threat has been expanding during the recent months.
While the Afghan President Ghani will put a brave face to the outside world on the ability of the Afghan national forces to meet the threat, in reality he would be worried. His fears will be further compounded in terms of the ongoing direct dialogue between the US and the Taliban. One only wishes that the announcement of reducing American footprint in Afghanistan is not a part of any secret deal with the Taliban.
A bigger problem to President Ghani and the moderate sections is the increasing presence of the ISIS in Afghanistan. During the recent months, besides the Taliban, the ISIS has been targeting multiple places and people – from the minorities to their places of worship. While there has been a chimera of a dialogue with the Taliban, none exists with the ISIS in Afghanistan.
While the physical presence of the ISIS and its ability to carryout devastating attacks have declined substantially in Syria, the opposite has been happening within Afghanistan. The ISIS is a force today there.
Setback to Regional Allies, Friends and Investments
Does the American withdrawal mean - a lifeline to the ISIS in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan?
An analysis in the Haaretz, made a scathing attack on Trump from an Israeli perspective. It read: “The US President is weak. He is running away, with America’s tail between its legs. He is abandoning Israel, betraying the Kurds and sticking a knife in the back of Bashar Assad’s opponents. He is strengthening Iran, handing a victory to Russia, throwing a lifeline to ISIS and encouraging radical Islam.”
One could observe from the above that Israel consider the scaling down of the American troops as a victory for the ISIS. More importantly, it is not the numbers (of the American troops) that count; when compared to the number of American troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, it US troops in Syria is a minuscule. What counts is the intent of the White House. Trump is seen as losing his stomach to put up a long drawn fight.
Worse is the reading about an American President, for whom domestic politics is more important that securing the larger global security. The resignation of James Mattis clearly underlines the domestic faultlines and opposition to Trump’s policies of sacrificing external interests to secure internal politics. Trump is certainly not likely to get upset with the opposition and the resignations by Matis and the others. He will be only happy to replace them with those who would support his narrow vision.
The above is something that would worry his allies in the Middle East.
In South Asia, India should be worried about the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. It is not just the numbers, rather it is the intention. If Trump is in a hurry to leave Afghanistan, under what circumstances he would leave? With an unstable Kabul? Or with an unstable Kabul forced to reach an understanding with the Taliban?
The first one – an unstable Kabul may still be acceptable to India. However, it would be a disaster, if Kabul is forced cede concessions with the Taliban, as a result of the US dialogue with the latter, and Trump’s hurry to leave Afghanistan.
A premature American exit will start a Regional Great Game
The larger threat to the region will come from how other countries in the immediate region would respond to the American pull-out from Syria and Afghanistan – both in terms of the numbers, and also in terms of the intentions.
In Syria, the following countries in the immediate region have stakes: Russia, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The differences amongst these countries are primarily related to supporting the Assad regime or those groups that oppose him; ISIS has been a late entrant into Syria, and hence also is a factor in the regional capitals vis-à-vis Damascus. While Turkey may not be inclined towards supporting the ISIS, it is against the Kurdish groups, that are fighting the ISIS in Syria. Israel and Russia see the ISIS as a long term threat, but their approaches towards the Assad regime are different. Though Saudi Arabia and Assad had a rapprochement a decade ago, now the relations between Riyadh and Damascus are totally different. Especially with Prince Salman in Riyadh and Trump in Washington, Saudi Arabia has its own regional game in Syria, with Iran positioned at the other spectrum.
Trump’s tweet clearly mentions about “Russia, Iran, Syria and others” as the “local enemies” of the ISIS in Syria. But the ISIS does not bring its enemies together in Syria; rather, post American exit, these counties will have their own regional game.
Similarly in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Russia have their own stakes along with India and a few other Central Asian states. Some would like to bring China also into this equation. In Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood – there are two big groupings – EurAsian Union and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are finding its roots.
While Russia sees Afghanistan from an ISIS prism, Pakistan sees from an overarching influence in its western neighbourhood. While Pakistan attempts to achieve its objectives through the Afghan Taliban, during the recent months, Russia has also been wooing the Taliban. Iran shares a long border and a violent history with Afghanistan. India wants to have its own presence felt directly and through Chabahar.
American exit will lead to another round of regional game in Afghanistan.
The larger question is: will it help Syria and Afghanistan to secure their recent positive turnaround? Trump may not be the regional policeman, but an encounter specialist who shoots with his weapon and also with his mouth, and leave the rest to face the consequences.
So what next Trump?
The above analysis was first published in Rising Kashmir