The flood of criticism that has followed President Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria is all too justified. The President’s decision was based on a fundamentally wrong strategic assumption: ISIS is not defeated and still has a significant presence in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, even the total defeat of ISIS as an organization does not mean the defeat of the terrorist and extremist threat in Syria. Just as ISIS rose out of the ashes of Al Qaida, some new extremist movement – like Al Nusra – will be born out of the remnants of ISIS.
As virtually all the President’s most senior experienced military and civilian advisors evidently pointed out to him before his decision, ISIS is still fighting in Syria and Iraq, it may well have some 40,000 fighters left in both countries, and it has a serious presence in other countries ranging from Africa to Asia. It is far too early to claim that ISIS is defeated and rush out of Syria – particularly suddenly and in ways that make it look like the U.S. is willing to abandon its allies and strategic partners without warning.
The Broader Strategic Challenge of America’s Ongoing Wars
The focus on Syria and ISIS, however, is only part of the much broader failure to develop effective U.S. strategies for any of America’s present wars, and the U.S. withdrawal from Syria affects far more than the fight against ISIS in one country. The U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are equally problematic, and a failed U.S. effort in Syria inevitably further undermines the U.S. position in Iraq, its credibility in Afghanistan, and the trust of its strategic partners throughout the world.
Like Trump’s emphasis on false burdensharing arguments and exaggerated arms sales, treatment of NATO and key allies in Asia – and his strategic mood swings in dealing with Russia, China and North Korea – his decision to suddenly withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria is only one part of a much broader set of strategic failures.
In fairness to President Trump, his emphasis on the cost and casualties in any of America’s wars cannot be ignored. The latest publically available Cost of War report issued by the Department of Defense indicates the total direct cost of America’s wars since 2010 will be $1.77 trillion by the end of FY2018 – with $756 billion for Iraq and Syria and $730 billion for Afghanistan and a large amount of support for both wars and other costs. The State Department has never provided a credible costing of its part of the fighting, but it probably adds another $127-$132 billion.
Even if one ignores civilian and allied casualties, the Department of Defense reports that there were 6,978 US military dead. 5,434 killed in combat, and 52,783 wounded between 2010 and December 19, 2018. Far too many of those wounded will continue to suffer and need continuing medical care for all of their lives.
President Trump also did not create the lack of any effective strategy in fighting and ending America’s wars. The younger President Bush invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 without a clear strategy for ensuring the final defeat of the Taliban, and failed to either create a stable new Afghan government economy or check Pakistani interference. He invaded Iraq with no plan to stabilize the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein and mismanaged the post-invasion effort so badly he created a whole new threat of Sunni Islamic extremists while opening the country up to Iran.
President Obama did no better. He failed to keep an effective U.S. presence in Iraq, sustained a meaningful civil-stability effort, and left Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki to create new sectarian and ethnic tensions that opened up Iraq and Syria to ISIS and the still ongoing war to defeat it. He failed to intervene in Syria when a limited push could have removed Assad, failed to enforce his own red line against the use of chemical weapons, and failed to react when Iran, Hezbollah, and then Russia intervened. He set impossible goals for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and then failed to deploy effective levels of force when his withdrawal plans decisively failed.
As a result, a President with almost no real foreign policy and military background and experience has inherited a climate of bipartisan strategic failure in the Iraq/Syria war, the Afghan War, and some seven much smaller U.S. military interventions from Africa to Asia, as well as having to deal with successful Iranian intervention in Syria and Iraq, as well as the al too many areas where Arab divisiveness and self-destructiveness has opened up the Middle East to Iranian intervention.
The Broader Strategic Challenge in Syria
That said, America’s current strategy cannot be based on “might have beens.” It must be based on “now can be dones.” A strategy based on a sudden, unilateral U.S. withdrawal from Syria without a proper effort to deal with its future or the region’s stability would be dangerous even if ISIS had actually been defeated, rather than just seen most of its “caliphate” broken up.
The Assad regime is an authoritarian nightmare, Russia’s presence in Syria threatens vital U.S. interests, the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria threats our Arab strategic partners and Israel, and Turkey’s potential intervention in Syria can mean a major round of fighting with the Kurds and potentially in support of Sunni extremists in the Syrian enclave around Idlib.
More broadly, the U.S. will now leave in a way where it did not consult any of its strategic partners, including France, Jordan, and Israel, and at a time its role in the region is deeply distrusted in Iraq and the Arab Gulf. It will give the Hezbollah a major boost in Lebanon by default and a similar boost to Iran throughout the region. It has effectively betrayed its Kurdish partners, the impact on the Iraqi Kurds and Pesh Merga will be highly negative, and it will compound its problems in dealing with other strategic partners in the MENA region.
This is especially true because the U.S. has said it will not provide any aid for Syrian economic and civil recovery if Assad stays in power – although it may continue to do so on a de facto basis by providing humanitarian aid. This leaves Syria as a nation without a working economy, with millions of refugees that have no clear incentive to return, and with something like a third of its remaining population displaced from its pre-civil war homes, schools and jobs. As the CIA’s World Factbook notes,
“Syria’s economy has deeply deteriorated amid the ongoing conflict that began in 2011, declining by more than 70% from 2010 to 2017. The government has struggled to fully address the effects of international sanctions, widespread infrastructure damage, diminished domestic consumption and production, reduced subsidies, and high inflation, which have caused dwindling foreign exchange reserves, rising budget and trade deficits, a decreasing value of the Syrian pound, and falling household purchasing power. In 2017, some economic indicators began to stabilize, including the exchange rate and inflation, but economic activity remains depressed and GDP almost certainly fell….During 2017, the ongoing conflict and continued unrest and economic decline worsened the humanitarian crisis, necessitating high levels of international assistance, as more than 13 million people remain in need inside Syria, and the number of registered Syrian refugees increased from 4.8 million in 2016 to more than 5.4 million.”
This economic crisis is coupled to the reality that Assad – part of a relatively tiny Alawite minority in Syria (1.5-1.9%) – must now try to rule a Syria whose Sunni majority (74%) has every reason to fear and hate him, whose Kurds have never been treated a fully citizens, and whose larger Shi’ite minority (10-11%)must now depend on Iranian and Hezbollah support. the idea that peace negotiations can somehow produce lasting stability under these conditions is absurd. Like the premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and failed plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, it can only breed new forms of extremism and civil conflict.
Simply staying in Syria would not be enough, but it would give the U.S. continuing leverage, reassure strategic partners, allow for a much more complete defeat of ISIS, and provide some degree of stability. The U.S. could also greatly increase it leverage, and counter both Assad and ISIS-like extremism, by organizing an international aid package that was conditional on Assad leaving, all of Syria’s factions uniting to revive the country, and Iranian and Hezbollah departure. Even if Assad (and Russia) did not budge, it would put intense pressure on both and offer a clear alternative to extremism.
The Broader Strategic Challenge in Iraq
President Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw from Syria raises equally deep questions about the lack of any clear U.S. strategy for Iraq. Iraq is still trying to cope with the second election in a row that left it without an effective majority government. It faces massive problems in rebuilding the rest of its economy, uniting its Kurds and Arabs, in uniting its Sunnis and Shi’ites, and in both completing the feat of ISIS in its west and rebuilding the largely Sunni cities and rural areas damaged or destroyed by the fighting against ISIS.
The rushed U.S. withdrawal from Syria may well open up Western Iraq to new threats from ISIS and other Sunni extremists as well as allow Iran to create a major new corridor of influence and a transit route through Iraq’s south. These problems will be sharply exacerbated by the Iraqi central government’s failure to keep its promises to help the Sunnis in the west and Mosul recover from the fighting, and the increased fear Iraq Kurds will have of being isolated or weakened by similar U.S. abandonment.
The lack of any coherent political unity in its new government, and the deep internal tensions between Iraq’s divided Kurds (15-20%), Sunni Arabs (29-34% of total), and Shi’ite Arabs (64%-69% of total) mean that Iraq will face a growing risk of new civil conflicts. There will be even less incentive for Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs to give their popular militias – some of which approach an extremist character – and for the Kurdish Pesh Merga to work with the central government forces. The U.S. withdrawal will also make all Iraqis question U.S. reliability, and push them towards dependence on Iran and even more purchases of Russian arms.
Iraq also faces a massive economic crisis as well as political divisions and security threats. As the CIA notes, the Iraqi government is almost totally dependent on its oil export revenues for roughly 85% of government revenue and 80% of foreign exchange earnings, and oil exports are the major determinant of the economy’s fortunes.” These funds could not meet Iraq’s current needs even if they were spent honestly and effectively.
Iraq is now virtually bankrupt, has one of the most corrupt governments in the world, and is barely able to fund its most basic functions and the salaries for its state sector. It has far too few additional funds for wartime recovery, economic reform and development, and to help bridge the gaps between Sunni and Shi’ite or Arab and Kurd. It still is spending some 10% of its GDP on its military, is dependent on imports from Iran, and needs help in carrying out critical economic reforms in its private and agricultural sectors
In short Iraq needs years of further U.S. help to achieve internal stability. It needs help to secure its borders. It needs a strong U.S. military train and assist mission to finish the job of creating effective Iraqi forces. It needs U.S. military support until ISIS is further defeated and to deter any outside threats by Iran or from an Assad controlled Syria. It needs U.S. help in putting together the kind of international economic aid package that can bring stability, recovery, and development; unite its people; and fight extremism.
At present, however, the U.S. has no real strategy for Iraq that is coupled to real world promises, plans, and resources. The results of the election this year left it far too close to the position it had when a paralyzed election in 2010 led Maliki to turn on the nation’s Sunnis, and to create a low-level civil war in the Sunni parts of Western Iraq that empowered ISIS. Unless the U.S. now develops an effective civil-military strategy, and implements it over a period of years, it will run a serious risk of repeating Iraq’s all too grim recent past.
The Broader Strategic Challenge in Afghanistan
The Afghan conflict does not have the direct linkage to Syria that the Iraq conflict does, but it raises similar concerns about the present Trump policies and strategy. The U.S. now seems to be pursuing almost the same strategy in Afghanistan that led to the collapse of South Vietnam. It seems to be seeking peace so it can withdraw. It has no clear plan for creating an effective Afghan government. It also has no clear plan for either finishing the job it botched earlier of creating Afghan forces, or giving Afghanistan effective political and economic support.
The Afghan government remains a divided, corrupt, and ineffective mess. The election that left Ashraf Ghani as President and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah as CEO is not functional enough to meet Afghan needs on either a civil or warfighting level. The Afghan legislature lacks the unity, authority, and control over money to be effective. Yet, the U.S. seems to be negotiating with the Taliban in ways that could block or further delay an Afghan presidential election that might provide a single leader with real political credibility – an option even worse than the stage-managed elections in South Vietnam.
Afghanistan faces critical civil problems as well. Flight to the cities, rising poverty, massive unemployment, corruption at every level, divisions between power brokers and de facto warlords, a brain drain to other countries, and growing dependence on a narco-economy all offset the areas where Afghanistan is making civil progress. As the CIA notes,
“Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care, and jobs. Corruption, insecurity, weak governance, lack of infrastructure, and the Afghan Government’s difficulty in extending rule of law to all parts of the country pose challenges to future economic growth. Afghanistan’s living standards are among the lowest in the world. Since 2014, the economy has slowed, in large part because of the withdrawal of nearly 100,000 foreign troops that had artificially inflated the country’s economic growth.
The United States is also negotiating with the Taliban at a time when the Taliban is refusing to deal with the Afghan government and is confident of victory – and not without cause. The Taliban seems to be slowly winning its battle of attrition with Afghan forces despite the fact that the U.S. has increased some aspects of its train and assist effort and will probably drop nearly 50% more air weapons in 2018 than it did in 2017 (6,584 strike sorties through October 31, 2018 vs. 4,603 in all of 2017 or 43% increase; 5,982 weapons dropped through October 31, 2018 vs. 4,361 in all of 2017 or 37% increase).
More and more Department of Defense reporting seems to either ignore the war or spin its content to avoid honestly reporting on the course of the war and the problems Afghan forces are encountering and doing so in ways similar to the “follies” in Vietnam.
There seem to be serious differences in the Department of Defense view of the war and that of the CIA. Independent official analyses like those of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and the Lead Inspector General raise serious questions about the course of the fighting, the steady growth of Taliban control and influence in new areas, and progress of Afghan forces if the United States does not provide sustained support.
Key outside analyses like those of the Long War Journal – and most media reporting – also raise similar or much greater doubts about what will happen if the U.S. should now agree to the wrong kind of peace, fail to provide years of economic aid and support to Afghan forces, and rush out as it did in Vietnam.
There is a desperate need to seek peace in Afghanistan, but it must be a real peace, and one that leaves a real government in charge – not the Taliban. Vietnam also is scarcely the only case in point illustrating how a fragile or false peace can produce the wrong results. The outcome of peace negotiations in Nepal and Cambodia are further examples as to just how easily peace negotiations can become an extension of war by other means.
The U.S cannot support Afghanistan indefinitely. It has no responsibility to continue to do so if the Afghans again fail to elect an effective government, if they fail to develop their forces over a reasonable period, or do not reduce corruption and if they make the necessary reforms. Declaring peace and abandoning Afghanistan, however, is no substitute for only agreeing to the right kind of peace and for continuing to provide kind of military and economic aid that Afghanistan needs to have a meaningful chance. So far, there is far too little evidence that this is the strategy that the Trump Administration is pursuing.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.
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