CANBERRA – ‘Twas the week before Christmas, when U.S. President Donald Trump issued another bombshell from the White House. With a single tweet, he decided to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria over the coming months; the next day, his administration announced that the number of troops in Afghanistan, currently 14,500, would be halved.
According to The Times, Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria “came during a phone call with President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey and took the U.S. defense leadership by surprise.” After pointing out that the Islamic State had been 99 percent defeated, Erdogan reminded Trump of his own past statements listing IS as the only reason for the U.S. presence in Syria. As if on cue, Trump duly tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”
The announced withdrawal from Syria and drawdown in Afghanistan met with consternation in Washington, among U.S. allies and within Trump’s own Cabinet. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat IS, both resigned in protest. And yet, Trump’s decision not only fulfilled a campaign promise; it also validates former U.S. President Barack Obama’s own critiques of a “Washington playbook” that prescribes military responses to most foreign crises.
According to a 2015 Congressional Research Service report, in the 191-year period between 1798 and 1989, the U.S. used force abroad 216 times, or 1.1 times per year on average. By comparison, the U.S. deployed force 152 times — 6.1 times per year — in the 25-year period after the end of the Cold War.
Despite a nearly sixfold increase in the frequency of its use of force, the U.S. has clinched few, if any, decisive military victories in recent decades. Robert A. Lovett, secretary of defense in the Truman administration, recommended when faced with political crises that carried great risks for small gains: “Forget the cheese; let’s get out of the trap.” The U.S. should forget the cheese of Pax Americana in the Islamic Crescent, escape the intervention trap and bring the troops home.
On Afghanistan, neither Obama nor his predecessor, George W. Bush, ever managed to answer three critical questions satisfactorily: Why are Americans still there? What interests justify unending U.S. sacrifices? How will the war end?
These questions were never answered because there were no political consequences for failing to answer them.
Joe Quinn, a veteran of three deployments there and in Iraq, observes 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, Quinn concluded that the $68 billion spent on Afghan forces had not bought “the essential ingredients of a fighting force: loyalty, courage and integrity.”
In Syria, external interference prolonged and intensified the conflict, as well as civilian casualties and suffering, but failed to dislodge the country’s dictator, Bashar Assad, from power. Thus, Western interference has aggravated the pathology of broken, corrupt and dysfunctional politics across the region, from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa. Truly, there is no humanitarian crisis so grave that outside interference cannot make it worse.
The chorus of criticism that met Trump’s Christmas announcement can be distilled into four core arguments. The first is that a precipitous withdrawal will destabilize the region. But a withdrawal after 17 years of sustained fighting in the Middle East and North Africa is anything but “precipitous.” Serial U.S. interventions have left the region bleeding, broken and dysfunctional. Stripped of its sophistry, this argument boils down to an absurdity: Because U.S. military interventions have failed, they must be maintained indefinitely.
Meanwhile, demoralized and corrupt Afghan forces are deserting en masse and the Taliban is resurgent, having become tactically savvier with each passing year. The group has now reclaimed large swaths of the territory that it lost after the U.S. occupation. The U.S. military presence has become part of the problem, in which case an exit may help reestablish local and regional equilibria.
The second argument is to point out that the “war on terror” is not finished. But this involves a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, America’s long war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001, has created far more extremists than it has eliminated. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya have all become breeding grounds for fanatics spewing hatred against America and Americans. The U.S. has neither the expertise and capacity nor the willpower to sustain a successful nation-building effort in such hostile environments. And besides, Saudi Arabia, America’s longtime ally, is the leading enabler of Islamic fundamentalism across the region.
The third argument holds that a withdrawal by the U.S. amounts to a victory for Russia and Iran. But those making this claim should consult a map. Russia and Iran are both neighbors of the Middle East, whereas the U.S. is separated by an ocean. If Russia wants to own the Syrian conflict and return to Afghanistan — that graveyard of empires — the U.S. should not stand in its way.
The last argument warns that a U.S. withdrawal will leave Israel exposed to its deadly enemies. But Israel is the region’s most formidable military power and its only nuclear-armed state.
At the end of the day, critics of a U.S. withdrawal have no real alternatives to offer. If Trump were to agree to leave U.S. forces in place for another six months and then another, U.S. voters would ask why he broke his campaign promise. And if he was to put the same question to the generals, they would say: “Mr. President, we do military strategy, not politics. By the way, sir, we need just another six months to finish the job.”
Ramesh Thakur, an emeritus professor at the Australian National University, is a former U.N. assistant secretary-general and author of “The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect.” © Project Syndicate, 2018 www.project-syndicate.org