by Stephen Bryen
President Donald Trump has been at odds with the Pentagon brass and a lot of pundits over his aim to get US troops out of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The latest is his declaration that the US will have all its troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas. The Pentagon said they never heard that, but the fact is the President would not, at this stage, even bother asking them.
The argument the Pentagon folks make is straightforward. The Pentagon and pundits don’t want to withdraw US troops –in fact, they have pushed for increasing them whenever they could convince officials to let them.
For the most part the results have been far from unsatisfactory for at least four reasons.
Reason 1. American keep getting killed and wounded in direct proportion to how many of them are deployed in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, there is no empirical evidence that their presence achieves anything other than painting a target on the back of our soldiers.
Reason 2. Using American forces in civil wars and insurgencies has been ineffective because the civil wars and insurgencies may be suppressed, but they can’t be destroyed and they emerge again in one form or another. The Taliban is a clear case that it has never been defeated and now is stronger than it has been in years. Al-Qaeda is another example: it is again active in Afghanistan and in the Middle East it has just mutated into ISIS and other radical Islamism organizations.
Reason 3. Much US equipment is left worn out or worse, impacting US readiness. Countless combat aircraft are worn down and will have to be prematurely taken out of service. Our bomber force has been over-utilized. US ground equipment is, for the most part, wrecked and often is trashed. Consider the sad end of the overhyped MRAP behemoths which are being scrapped. In Afghanistan the US is dumping $7 billion worth of equipment including the majority of the MRAPs. Furthermore, reserves of precision weapons, even ammunition, are running low or entirely depleted.
Reason 4. The immediate and long term costs of these wars and the lack of tangible benefit points to a tremendously negative cost-benefit assessment. The US has blown more than $2 trillion on Afghanistan –a vast sum. And even if all US troops are out tomorrow, the costs will keep mounting in the form of healthcare and other benefits for servicemen and women, the need to replace lost equipment and supplies and foreign aid costs that are not likely to go away anytime soon. It is not much better for what we have spent furtively on Iraq: $1.92 trillion or more! While manufacturing military hardware creates jobs (at least for a while), military spending creates fewer jobs than the same amount of money would have, if invested in other sectors such as education.
The best argument that the pro-interventionists can make is that the US will lose its influence in a vital region, the Middle East and a part of south Asia, if troops are pulled out.
Yet many have observed that in certain ways the US has already lost its influence. For example, it still has not succeeded in forcing a peace deal in Afghanistan; Iraq is now aligned with Iran, not with the United States (which it tolerates but does not want); and the Kurds have been sacrificed in both Iraq and Syria to US attempts to mollify Turkey in order to keep it in the NATO collective security system.
The President’s outlook does not align with the Pentagon-Pundits view. While the President has not spoken at length about his reasons, they seem to focus on his belief that these wars are costly and inconclusive. As a businessman he does not see any benefit to the United States and he is extremely sensitive about the cost to the lives of US servicemen and women.
But there is much more. The President has successfully helped achieve a peace deal between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, and is close to getting Saudi Arabia to make open deals with Israel. Likewise the President has been very firmly supporting Israel, more than any previous President. Thus the bottom line is that Trump’s actions completely undermine the pro-interventionist argument that the US is losing influence in the region. In fact, for the first time the US is fostering an effective coalition aimed at challenging an expansionist and aggressive Iran. This is truly a big development, and it makes the “small ball” players in the Pentagon seem to be on the wrong playing field.
The truth is that Iraq, Syria and especially Afghanistan are losers for the United States. Too many brave men and women have been sacrificed for no good reason. That does not mean the US needs to retreat. It means the US needs to invest where it counts strategically. Building a solid coalition against Iran is in the US national interest. Staying forever in Iraq or Afghanistan is counterproductive.
We are now at 19 years and counting in Afghanistan. Ask yourself if that makes sense?