When President Trump gave notice he’s withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan, the overwhelming reaction from cable news networks to foreign policy think tanks was shock and horror. But as a military veteran with significant experience of the Afghan and Middle Eastern conflicts, I was heartened. Because in contrast to most US foreign policy of the past 20 years, Trump is making the right call. The question is – will it herald a more sensible US foreign policy in the years to come?
I know many readers are probably howling with disagreement (anything involving Trump tends to be divisive), so let me explain my thinking…
Afghanistan and Syria have both become quagmires for the US because both conflicts are proxy wars involving three tiers of actors: Tier 1 – international, Tier 2—regional, and Tier 3 – local.
The US is a Tier 1 proxy. It deployed troops to both countries and used its technological superiority, global influence and deep pockets to change or attempt to change the regime to secure its own interests.
But the US isn’t the only Tier 1 actor.
China is active in Afghanistan and Russia is active in Syria. They too have used their global influence, deep pockets — and in the case of Russia – troops to attempt to secure their national interests. Tier 1 actors often work in opposition to one another, though sometimes they can work alongside one another — if it suits both their interests at the same time.
The Tier 2 proxies are the regional heavyweights. In Syria, the main Tier 2 proxies are Saudi Arabia, which is aligned with the US, and Iran, which is aligned with Russia. In Afghanistan, it would be Pakistan as the main one, which has aligned itself with the US and also with China. But it’s also worked against US interests in Afghanistan.
Notice how Tier 2 actors can change which Tier 1 countries they support or even straddle two opposing ones. It really depends on what suites their interests. Pakistan, for example, has accepted billions in loans from China to build infrastructure. It’s also accepted billions from the US in aid. But what Islamabad cares most about is securing its own interests in Afghanistan. And while the US has chosen to engage militarily in Afghanistan, China has snapped up valuable mining rights and is prepared to throw lots of money around as part of its Belt and Road initiative (an amorphous plan to reverse from the flow of goods, ideas and influence away from the west and toward Beijing).
The Tier 3 proxies are the local actors. In Syria they include the regime of Bashar al Assad, which is aligned with Iran and Russia, and the myriad groups opposed to Assad, some of which are aligned with Saudi Arabia and the US. Others though are aligned with Turkey and the US. And then there’s ISIL, which draws support locally, regionally and internationally. Confusing right? That’s because Tier 3 actors couldn’t give a toss about the interests of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 actors. The Tier 3 players are too busy trying to decipher who’s winning at any given point in the conflict in order to secure their own interests (which in order of importance are the interests of themselves, their family and their tribe).
The main point I’m trying to make is that while Tier 1 actors like the United States are by far the most powerful in absolute terms, the variable allegiances of Tier 2 and Tier 3 actors can easily confound a Tier 1 agenda in a proxy war.
For almost 20 years, I’ve watched intensively as the US and its allies have aggressively asserted influence over a country and region. From Afghanistan to Iraq. From Iraq to Libya. And from Libya to Syria.
A staggering amount of taxpayer money has been ploughed into these conflicts. But it’s dwarfed by the expenditure in blood. The blood of great, young military men and women from the US and its allies, and the blood of thousands of civilians who’ve been gravely wounded or lost their lives from Afghanistan to Syria.
Of course, the carnage doesn’t end at the battlefield. Military veterans often carry physical and mental wounds home. Many find it tough to adjust to civilian life. Some will require support for the rest of their lives. And let’s not forget how many veterans’ lives are cut short by suicide.
And who knows how many civilian lives have been derailed by the wars from Afghanistan to Syria? How much human promise and potential has been pulverized by bombs, buried in rubble or slowly corroded and snuffed out in the trail of tears that is a refugee’s journey?
That is the legacy of US foreign policy over the past 20 years. All that blood and treasure squandered for little to no reward.
People will often argue, “We must stay the course for the sake of our brave, dead military men and women who gave all.” I’ve heard this for years from politicians as well as senior officers who play the political game, and therefore wear their political hat instead of their military one.
So as a military veteran, let me put this argument to rest. No one can change what’s happened over the past 20 years. Politicians and generals who argue to keep sacrificing blood and treasure to justify past policy mistakes are not fit to lead. We need brave, visionary leaders who are willing to plot a new, more productive course in the decades ahead.
You cannot fight unconventional warfare with one hand tied behind your back. Rules of war for one side, but none for the other.
Now, I’m not saying that Trump is brave and visionary. And I, like everyone else, can only guess how US foreign policy will deliver us twenty years from now. However, given the high profile resignations of the last week, including US Defence Secretary James Mattis, I’m hopeful that the status quo – which has destroyed millions of lives – is finally being upended.
The US and its allies have to be smarter about how they contain Russia and China. Both countries, as we all know, are making up for lost decades and ramping up their military strength, conventionally and unconventionally. More importantly, they are projecting their strength abroad. China through doling out billions to fund infrastructure projects as part of the Belt & Road initiative; Russia by deploying troops to Syria; and both by various forms of cyber warfare.
The US also has to choose its Tier 2 allies more wisely. Look no further than Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration must rue the day it bet the farm on the kingdom’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who’s in the international community’s bad books over the war in Yemen, and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Meanwhile, the Saudi’s sworn enemy, Iran, has played a canny game in the Middle East, supporting the Assad regime in Syria – which, make no mistake, has all but won the war.
The fact that Assad is pretty well victorious makes me wonder where Syria would be today were it not for corporate-led skulduggery within the international community? Assad is no saint. He mercilessly crushes his opposition. But had the regional and international actors stayed out of Syria and let Assad get on with his brutal crushing of dissent, we’d be at the same place where we are now, only thousands more would still be alive, Syria would not be a pile of ashes and millions would not be displaced. It’s entirely likely that ISIL never would have gained a foothold in Syria.
As things stand, ISIL has been seriously diminished in Syria, so using it as justification for keeping US troops there rings hollow. Assad and other regional actors can tackle what’s left of the terror group. In Afghanistan, it’s the same scenario. The Afghan government and other regional actors — perhaps including the Taliban– can clean up the burgeoning ISIL problem.
The US foreign policy scorecard over the past 20 years is grim. Afghanistan—failure. Iraq—failure. Libya—failure. Syria – epic failure.
2018 is almost at an end. I do hope 2019 is the year US troops come home and US foreign policy makers take a big, deep breath and start looking forward to the next twenty years (as opposed to just the next election in two years’ time). I hope they see fit to come together with key western allies and decide exactly which parts of the world they would like to influence in the decades to come. With any luck, they’ll try to exercise that influence through winning people over with soft power – and not through the hard power of troops and armed proxies. Because the US should know better by now.