Opinion

The withdrawal symptoms  

America’s off-shore power-projection is increasingly seeing diminishing returns in achieving its strategic goals, and Donald Trump seems to have realised it more than anyone else in Washington  

Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Hundred days is a hell lot of time in international diplomacy. Throw President Donald Trump in the equation and these might appear 100 days too many. Trump’s decision to wind up American military presence in Syria and considerably lessen it in Afghanistan will likely see several hiccups and sabotages. Mostly from inside, the Military Industrial Complex that rules the Pentagon and clearly wanted Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office. But whatever is the outcome, the countdown on American hegemony in the Greater Middle East has started.

For the uninitiated, the decision to withdraw the troops from Syria might have come as a surprise, but those in the know had an inkling for some time now that this was coming. It is not for nothing that regimes like Bahrain, Kuwait and UAE, who aligned with the Saudis, once financed the entire destabilisation campaign in Syria along with the Muslim Brotherhood duo of Turkey and Qatar, have been lining up outside the Palace of Bashar al Assad in Damascus begging for rapprochement. Their birdies in Washington had clearly informed them that the jig was up. Having said that, the suddenness of it left everyone perplexed nonetheless. Much to the chagrin of Democrats and the “liberals” who align with it.

While it is no secret that Democrats are as embedded in American war-profiteering as an average Republican is, it needed a Donald Trump to expose their blood-lust and blood-letting in its fullness. Public intellectuals, media pundits, actors; anyone and everyone aligned with Democrats, were seen ruing the decision and asking for more war. It is important to understand here however that this is not the first time a Republican President has ended a war started by a Democrat. At the very least, the Korean War and Vietnam War are two examples that come to mind.

What made Trump go for withdrawal? For the starters, this is not Trump’s war. This was Obama’s. From the very beginning, Trump wanted nothing to do with Syria. However, the neo-con clique comprising the likes of Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Jim Mattis not only stopped him from doing so but actually laid the traps to further entangle him there. In November, for example, National Security Advisor John Bolton, without taking his boss in confidence, decided to tell the world that the goal of US troops in Syria was not only to defeat Islamic State, but it was also to counter Iran. Earlier this summer, Secretary of Defence, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, decided to allow Israeli Air Force to use US landing strips in the Syrian province of Hasakah to target Iranian troops in Syria and Hashd al Shabi militia in Iraq. Again without taking his boss in confidence. With an Iranian-Syrian plan of arming local Arab tribes in Hasakah and Deir az Zor for insurrection against the US troops coming to fruition on one hand and with Sultan Erdogan all set to act against Kurds on the other, Trump realised that life is much tougher outside the celebrity reality show he had apprenticed with.

The United States is becoming increasingly incapable of using military means and off-shore power projection in successfully achieving its strategic goals. Trump, with all his buffoonery, seems to get it. It is only a matter of when and not if when others also start to get it.

The partial setback he received in the midterm poll also shook him from the stupor. He realised that now was the time of delivering on his promise of “draining the swamp” at the Capitol Hill. If the troops stayed any longer, they would have seen casualties; something Trump was not ready for in the run-up to his re-election. And at this point, he seems to be sticking to his guns.

Trump realises that with the clique of Pompeo, Bolton and Mattis around, sabotage is never far. Mattis, who must have promised its benefactors in the armament industry of more involvement in the Middle East, was crestfallen. He presented his personal grievance as something that had a national security implication and resigned. Liberals of the Democrat variety took a fraction of the second to forget the crimes of this Butcher of Falujjah and started eulogising him as a messiah. After all, when it comes to post-Cold War Globalist Hubris, the Democrats are very much cut from the same cloth as the Republicans. Consequently, Trump quickly understood that Mattis might go for sabotage or, worse still, a palace coup, and promptly cut his transition period from an initial three months to a week and a half.

Trump’s self-congratulation vis-à-vis defeating Islamic State notwithstanding, the protestations from Democrats and other Republicans—or as they are now collectively called, the “Beltway War Party”—also do not stand up to the scrutiny. The United States has used Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as a strategic asset, and by their own admission, they were more interested in “containing” it than defeating it. For over two years now, Islamic State’s last pocket East of Euphrates has remained intact and festering in spite of the US forces in their vicinity. If they could not eliminate it in two years, what makes one think that they will do so in the coming years? The idea was to keep it as a buffer zone between the Syrian government controlled territory and the one controlled by the US and its proxies.

As demonstrated amply in the territories west of Euphrates, Syrian Arab Army and its allies are perfectly capable of eliminating the remnants of Islamic State, and that is what they will do once the US withdraws the troops for real. In fact, sources close to this correspondent in Syria maintain that General Sohail al-Hassan-led Tiger Forces have already been asked to report to the East Euphrates front, and they are doing so even as this report goes to print.

The situation in Afghanistan is even grimmer. While Syria posed the mere possibility of casualties, Afghanistan was offering them aplenty already. And this had only increased in the last few years. Under Mattis’ pressure, Trump initially increased the troops in Afghanistan. He also started a rather public feud with Pakistani military and civilian elites. However, Trump very quickly realised that there was no solution in Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. Within months, while still firing salvos on the social media, Americans reached out to Pakistan and asked their help in negotiating with Taliban. The only party to be bypassed was, in fact, Afghanistan’s elected government.

Pakistan released Taliban’s deputy chief Mullah Baradar on American request and the negotiations started. I call it negotiation but those in the know term it as a one-sided begging. Americans were literally begging the Taliban to let them keep two big bases and rule the rest of it. Taliban would have none of it. Other stakeholders, Russia, Iran and China were already negotiating to protect their own interests. India—rather predictably— was banking on American largesse.

Unlike in Syria, Trump was dealing with the Afghanistan file rather personally. The Bolton-Pompeo–Mattis troika wanted the war to rather continue. Inside their mind, they had done the cost-benefit analysis and a hundred Americans dead in a year was thought to be a small price to pay in the effort to keep the corporate-military nexus well-oiled.

However, this calculation failed when Taliban sleeper cell took the aim at a security conference attended by the top US military commander in the country, Gen. Scott Miller and Brig. Gen. Jeffery Smiley, the chief advisor at Kandahar based command. Sources say that Gen. Miller was rather allowed to escape. Taliban wanted to give the signal to the US in general and Trump in particular that if they wanted, they could have eliminated a four-star general. However, they didn’t actually eliminate him as that would have brought the ego of the US Army into play, hindering Trump’s plan to withdraw. The same attack saw Afghanistan’s primary anti-Taliban brain and brawn, the Police Chief of Kandahar killed. This broke whatever little morale Afghan Forces had. They have suffered a string of losses after that attack and are retreating royally. The troika of Bolton-Pompeo-Mattis still wanted the war to go on. Trump would have none of it. And when the troika tried to stall the talks, Trump retaliated with the pull-out, leaving pretty little in the hands of the troika to even attempt a stall.

Sources, however, say that Pompeo has played a final hand by pressuring President Ghani to appoint long-time CIA hands Assadullah Khalid and Amrullah Saleh respectively as Defence and Interior Ministers. Both Khalid and Saleh are vacuous careerists who believed that they can win this war but had pretty little to show for it from their days as the former heads of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. Trump, however, will be seething with rage over this backstabbing and might even go for a fixed deadline for withdrawal rather than an open one just to spite Pompeo and President Ghani.

While the Beltway War Party wants people to believe that these are just knee-jerk decisions from Trump, the writing on the wall is clear. The United States is becoming increasingly incapable of using military means and off-shore power projection in successfully achieving its strategic goals. Trump, with all his buffoonery, seems to get it. It is only a matter of when and not if when others also start to get it.

(The writer is visiting faculty at Warsaw University)

This article first appeared in National Herald on Sunday

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