Four reasons Trump’s withdrawal is an error
Shifting tides in global geopolitics come with a number of developments that can be frustrating to keep track of, let alone account for their implications. The Trump administration has more or less upended what has been a traditional US role in global affairs, from needless trade spats to tense NATO summits and a haphazard Middle East policy. It remains unclear whether sudden policy shifts such as the decision to withdraw from Syria and pull some US troops out of Afghanistan have strategic aims.
Until 2000, US foreign policy had largely settled in the formation of coalitions with friendly governments for trade, security cooperation and/or creating bulwarks against aggressors. However, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush committed to a massive deployment of US forces to pursue Osama bin Laden. Although US military firepower decimated the Taliban’s control and influence in Afghanistan, peace and the establishment of a friendly Kabul government remained elusive.
However, the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan was only the beginning of a larger War on Terror that led to the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Back in Afghanistan, far from winning hearts and minds, US policy abdicated leadership in favor of warlords and ethnic groups. As a result, potential stability became plagued by corruption and kleptocracy reaching the highest levels of power in Kabul. Unfortunately for ordinary Afghans, the US presence became synonymous with hardship and atrocities typical of an alienated citizenry — a boon for a weakened Taliban itching to regain its strength and vie for power in the face of increasing US disinterest.
The US has spent a staggering $1.6 trillion in the Afghan war effort and reconstruction — in perspective, more than twice the size of Saudi Arabia’s economy.
Even Daesh has managed to maintain a presence in Afghanistan and instigated terrorist attacks despite the presence of about 14,000 US troops. It is now estimated the Taliban is controlling more territory in Afghanistan than it did before the US invasion.
Thus, President Trump’s decision to suddenly start withdrawing 7,000 US troops is worrying, for Afghans and the Middle East. Despite the staggering human and financial cost of the war and the calls at home to draw down US military involvement in far-off countries, unusual influences may have driven Trump’s desire to pull US troops from the region.
US withdrawal will confirm the narrative of a global superpower in decline, and will make it more likely that allies and other states even beyond the MENA region seek new security arrangements.
In Syria’s case, withdrawing troops will go a long way to appease NATO ally Turkey, which has consistently objected to the US arming and training Syrian Kurdish forces which tied to the outlawed PKK. In Afghanistan, US officials have met and held talks with Taliban representatives twice this year in a bid to arrive at a peace agreement. Unfortunately, the Taliban declines to speak to the Kabul government.
Some US politicians, Democrats included, have welcomed Trump’s decision. Others, Republicans included, have been less amenable. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went so far as to resign in protest.
There are some catastrophic implications of a sudden, swift drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan, Syria and even Iraq. First, Washington is likely to have little influence in the countries it withdraws from, making it impossible to control inevitable developments in the power vacuums left in their absence. Complete drawdowns in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq will probably lead to a resurgence of nefarious actors such as Daesh, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, turning already unstable countries into hotbeds for cross-border insurgency and terror attacks.
Second, a reduction in the US presence in the region will further entrench the conclusion that for all its wealth and military might, US power and influence is on the decline. This will feed into a potentially damaging narrative that the US will no longer be willing or able to deploy its military in order to secure its interests and those of its allies — a welcome development for the West’s adversaries and potentially troubling for US allies.
Third, it is likely that a swift drawdown will be interpreted as a victory for adversaries intent on driving the US out of these countries. As a result, it could increase regional instability.
Finally, US withdrawal will confirm the narrative of a global superpower in decline, and will make it more likely that allies and other states even beyond the MENA region seek new security arrangements.
In the meantime, the region can only wait to see whether the Trump administration will amend the policy or opt for an alternative solution that involves Russia, China, Europe and regional partners. This way, even if US troops are withdrawn, there would still be a formidable coalition that can impede the growth or resurgence of the elements that prompted US involvement in the first place.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group.