In all the turmoil, poison, and irresponsibility of the past two years, the last 72 hours merit the term “historic.”
This is a “do not adjust your set” moment, in which the world’s preeminent military power effectively withdrew from its two active battlefields, ceded the ground to its geopolitical rivals, and abandoned allies. It is unprecedented. It’ll be tempting to dismiss it as another folly that will pass - like ‘Fire and Fury’ over a nuclear North Korea - as just another whimsical uttering we will soon roll our eyes over as we sigh “remember that!”.
But President Trump’s announcements about Syria and Afghanistan change something permanently. It’s possible, that in the ever-changing madness, neither withdrawal will actually happen. But it is the message that is the most potent: the casual disregard of history, ally, or duty. It says the Commander in Chief considers his own gut paramount, and the decades of sacrifice that got America to this point of lesser importance.
First, Afghanistan. The expected announcement of the withdrawal of 7,000 troops that could come as early as January, is precisely what you do not do when your officials are trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. These unprecedented talks, that have been taking place in the UAE between the Taliban and the US, were themselves a sign of a rash rush to find a political accommodation with an insurgency that is raging and controls more territory than any time since 2001. The continued US military presence was on the table in these talks, as the US sought to bring the Taliban into politics, even though they are increasingly extremist and ridden with al-Qaeda affiliates.
Yesterday’s announcement that half the US contingent could be coming home is the equivalent of Trump walking behind his diplomats as they engage in diplomatic poker, and yelling “he’s bluffing”. The timing is beyond undermining.
The reduced US forces’ size – which has yet to be formalized and remains for the foreseeable future 14,000 strong – will have to have a more limited mission. Most likely, they will pursue high-value terror targets and provide limited air support to Afghan forces. But the broader support role for the Afghan army they currently provide – training, in-the-field backup – is out of the question. They will essentially be pursuing the “counterterrorism plus” limited role advocated back in 2008 by Vice-President Joe Biden, who argued that the Obama surge was wasteful and unlikely to succeed, and the US should pursue more modest ambitions.
But this is not the logical conclusion of a National Security Council debate. Barely 16 months ago, Trump pledged to win in Afghanistan and gave his only detailed foreign policy platform speech to date on how the Oval Office weighed heavily on him and that he had decided to fight on in America’s longest war. Trump just decided to do this, timing and immediate consequence be damned. Most terrifyingly, we may never know the precise motivations that spurred on this move.
We do know that it benefits three groups: First, the Taliban, who now know that the White House is rushing for the exit, regardless of how long their troops retain their current force strength. Only the departure of Donald Trump will change that mood music, and they have a solid year ahead of them, as they already gain ground, to gain yet more.
Secondly, ISIS also win here. They thrive in the chaos of Afghanistan. And will continue to do so.
Thirdly, there is Russia. This should not come as a surprise by now when it comes to Donald Trump and foreign policy. US and Afghanistan have accused Russia of courting the Taliban with arms supplies and Moscow will now see yet greater scope for influence. They don’t want to own the problem, but they do want to see the US lose, like their empire did there in the eighties.
The American presence in Afghanistan did, one day, have to surely end. But after 17 years, the limited presence was sustainable more or less indefinitely. You simply had to pick the right moment to leave, or make an accommodation with the Taliban. And this, absolutely, isn’t something you can do when you announce you’re on the way out.
A similar issue surrounded the US presence in Syria. It was small and effective enough to be sustained more or less indefinitely. The US Special Forces there could go after ISIS, diminish Russian and Iran’s influence, and ensure the Syrian Kurds they fought ISIS alongside didn’t do anything stupid to their NATO allies Turkey in the North. At some point too they would have to leave, but when the conditions were right.
Instead, the announcement came in the face of Turkish threats to launch a full-scale offensive against the Syrian Kurds, and flatly leaves a valiant fighting force, who gave thousands of lives to rid the region of ISIS’s Caliphate, naked in the desert.
With an uncomfortable dose of cynicism, you can admit the US was eventually going to have to leave the Kurds to their own devices one day, anyway. The US could not stay forever, or allow the Kurds to create a permanent homeland in Northern Syria, without infuriating Turkey. Eventually they would have to disappoint either a NATO ally or a small militia, searching for a homeland. The choice was not complicated, but the timing, is, again, startlingly bad. Why on earth now?
Again, who benefits? First, ISIS, who get a little bit of breathing room in the chaos, just as they were close to being extinguished. Second, Turkey, who have a green light now to retake ground from the Syrian Kurds. And thirdly, Russia, whose alliance with the Syrian regime is now the dominant military power in the country.
These two hideously unwise policy moves are the present catastrophe, but the resignation of Mattis is what carries the chaos forward into the years ahead. His replacement cannot surely take the job without pursuing these two whimsical withdrawals at full pace. And it’s likely the next Defense Secretary will be chosen because he or she won’t apply the calming handcuffs of rational thought to policy that Mattis brought. We are in for a chaotic few months ahead, maybe years.
And do not make the mistake of thinking these two US withdrawals from war spell peace. They show weakness and instability. America’s supremacy and the world order since the Cold War were predicated on overwhelming military might and predictability. Now Washington’s adversaries are stronger militarily, and see that the old strictures no longer apply. No longer do you know what the US will and will not accept. Instead, the Commander in Chief of the most powerful war machine in history thinks of it as a device to be used to change the headlines, or express his potency.
The risk of conflict being initiated as rashly as these two withdrawals were announced has risen dramatically. And the risk of America’s adversaries calculating – with some justification – that now might be the time to think about pursuing their longer-term goals in somewhere say, like, Ukraine, massively rose too.
This is not a standard Trump-era blip, but a moment when the mood music saw a key change, or perhaps the screen went blue.