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US Middle East & West Asia Policy in Tatters

• US to Withdraw from Syria/ US Defence Secretary Resigns
• US Partial Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Geo-Political Ramifications

BY SHASHI MALLA
US to Leave Syria
In a surprise move, US President Trump has ordered the withdrawal of all US forces from Syria. It was well known that Trump like his predecessor had been skeptical about US military deployment abroad. Until now he had been dissuaded by his advisers including the defence secretary Jim Mattis from withdrawing US military troops from Syria. People are in a quandary about the reasons for Trump’s abrupt tweeted order of an immediate troop withdrawal, which has greatly surprised the Pentagon, the State Department, as well as US allies and opponents alike. It has been clear that Trump apparently made a lone decision without consulting any of his close administration officials, Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State), Jim Mattis (Defence Secretary) and John Bolton (National Security Adviser/NSA).
According to Professor Stephen Biddle of Columbia University (who served as strategic adviser to General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan and General David Petreaus in Iraq): “It’s very difficult to predict what Donald Trump will do about foreign policy on any given morning.” Very early morning is usually the time of day when Trump lets off his barrage of tweets, and his administration can be characterized as ‘governing by tweeting’! Biddle added that while it is true that the so-called “Islamic State” , the Islamist terror insurgency has been substantially weakened, it has not, contrary to Trump’s unilateral claim, been totally destroyed.
Trump’s sudden move was overwhelmingly condemned by both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress. The high-profile Senator Lindsay Graham, who is generally supportive of Trump, blasted the decision as highly ill-advised and “a disaster in the making.” It is possible that Trump doesn’t have the faintest idea of the Syrian imbroglio, its convoluted game of multi-dimensional chess, its hotchpotch of interlocking wars – civil, regional, ethnic, sectarian, big-power proxy. It is indeed telling that in the two years of his tenure, he has shirked visiting a ‘war zone’!
Surprisingly, the Pentagon and the State Department, which were caught completely unsuspecting and unprepared like a bolt from the blue by Trump’s lonely decision, are not only still trying to work out what Trump’s order means, but how it can be implemented. According to a report in “The New York Times”, both departments have already urged the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ to reconsider his unilateral decision. What is crystal clear is that the president has made a mockery of the national security decision-making process and has now become a grievous danger to US national security.
The paramount question, regardless of the inherent merits of a US withdrawal, is whether such a one-sided and disjointed decision can actually be followed up by the relevant institutions, above all the Pentagon. Given the administration’s weak and unpredictable nature, it is even difficult to predict whether the withdrawal will go into effect. There could be two major reasons why Trump was prompted in making such a rash decision without the ready advice of his national security team. First, Trump is under major psychological stress with the legal confrontations plaguing him personally, his family, his organization, his foundation, his 2016 presidential campaign and transition, as well as his inauguration and administration. In a word: the legal, political, economic and constitutional walls are closing in on Trump.The Syria decision could be a welcome distraction to divert the public’s attention from these very real threats. Second, the proponents of the far right, including the media like “Fox News” and his political base having been piling pressure on him to act on his campaign promises, like building the ‘Trump Wall’ on the southern Mexican border and pulling out of foreign military adventures like in Syria and Afghanistan.
US Defence Secretary Resigns over Syrian Pull-Out
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis threw in the towel immediately after Trump’s ill-fated decision. He made it abundantly clear that he could no longer be part of Trump’s disjointed decision-making process. Together with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former National Security Adviser Lt.Gen. H.R. McMaster and White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly, Gen. Mattis belonged to the group that could have controlled Trump’s worst instincts. The first two have already left, Gen. Kelly leaves at the end of this year and Gen. Mattis follows suit at the end of February. However, Trump was increasingly perceived as prone to sidelining his advisers and prone to making crucial decisions without consulting them and/or completely ignoring their valid objections. This, and above all Gen. Mattis’ forthcoming departure, has raised major concerns in Washington, especially if a crisis situation should arise. Now to make matters even worse, Brett McGurk, the US Special Envoy in the ISIS fight has also resigned in protest, for the recklessness of the US withdrawal.
Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of “The Atlantic” makes the salient point that “James Mattis understood from the beginning the nature of Trump’s intellectual, ideological, and characterological defects, even as he was pulled into Trump’s orbit, and into his Cabinet.” He nevertheless joined Trump’s team as a sense of patriotic duty, and he also resigned for the same reason, because he could no longer tolerate his foolish ways, which he realized Trump would never change. His resignation letter enumerates his blistering critique of Trump’s fundamental shortcomings: his acute lack of understanding of the value of allies, or the immorality of disparaging and abandoning them. Trump is abandoning America’s Kurdish allies in Syria to extremism and terror, and he is abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Considering Trump’s volatile nature and the fact that he is now surrounded by yes-men, the question is who will bell the cat. According to Mark Fitzpatrick, the executive director of the “International Institute for Strategic Studies” (IISS/Washington): “Although Trump has an individual ability to start a war and to launch nuclear weapons, there are other people involved who will try to steer him in the right direction should he go crazy.” Fitzpatrick points to the current National Security Adviser to continue to exercise some restraining power over the president’s worst impulses: “John Bolton is very influential – and whatever one may think about Bolton’s neocon tendencies and inclinations to use military force rather than diplomatic solutions – he is not a wild man, he is not a crazy person.” [!] US Withdrawal also in Afghanistan
There seems to be a method to Trump’s madness. His administration is reportedly also planning to call back nearly 7,000 US troops, about half of the American military presence in Afghanistan. This ill-fated decision has been taken even as the US has intensified efforts to find a political solution with the Taliban insurgent opposition. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, has been holding several high-profile talks with Taliban leaders in Qatar. Taliban control over Afghan territories has increased manifold in the past few years.
These talks are being facilitated by Pakistan, whose prime minister, Imran Khan, maintains that the Islamist group cannot be defeated by military means and that there can only be a political solution to the conflict. Pakistan’s military and civil establishment consider the Taliban an important strategic ally, who they think should be part of the Afghanistan government after the eventual withdrawal of US/NATO forces from the country. The all-powerful Pakistan military hopes to regain the influence in Kabul it once enjoyed before the United States and its allies ousted the pro-Pakistan Taliban government in 2001. The potential US troop reduction could provide Pakistan with a lever to influence the future political narrative in Afghanistan. It would, above all, provide “strategic depth” in its conflict with arch-antagonist India.
However, both Kabul and Washington have been mistrustful of Islamabad’s long-term objectives in Afghanistan. US and Afghan officials maintain that Pakistan supports some elements of the Taliban that destabilize the Afghan government. Moreover, the Pakistan military attempts to first, actively promote the return of the Taliban in Afghan politics, and second, to thwart Indian engagement in Afghanistan.
According to military experts, Trump’s rash decision vis-à-vis Afghanistan will only deepen the damage and disillusionment caused by America’s longest war of 17 years. As with Syria, Trump has clearly not thought one iota about the fate of the region, about long-term US interests. Trump’s sudden decision to cut the troop levels by half, with no concessions from the Taliban, seriously jeopardizes Khalilzad’s mission. Fred Kaplan writing for “Slade” believes that a possible total pullout “would spark disaster – anarchy, civil war, the return of a terrorist regime, the strengthening of the local branch of ISIS – in a region of nuclear powers [China, India, Pakistan] and great instability.
Thus, the year 2018 is closing in chaos. On the domestic front, the Trump administration is in utter turmoil, inclusive of a government shutdown of the president’s own making. In foreign affairs and national security, it is a one-man show with extremely unpredictable and unimaginable consequences. In such an unstable situation, can the House Democrats in January 2019 (then a majority) remain calm and idle, twiddling their thumbs, or will they in the supreme national interest trigger Article II, Section 4 of the American Constitution to remove the incumbent of the Oval Office “on impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors”.

The writer can be reached at: shashipbmalla@hotmail.com

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