The one thing Trump actually got right
Let’s see if we can figure out what the Trump strategy on Syria is. During his campaign for president, Trump’s strategy was to get the hell out of Syria, along with other unnecessary overseas military commitments, because we had neglected to “take the oil”; which was before April, 2017 when the plan was to send 59 Tomahawk missiles into an abandoned Syrian airfield to “punish” the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical munitions on its own people in Idlib Province; which was before March, 2018, when it was to bring American troops home from Syria when the battle against ISIS was won; which was before September, 2018, when it was that U.S. troops would “stay in Syria pending an overall settlement to the Syrian war and with a new mission: to act as a bulwark against Iran’s expanding influence,” according to the Washington Post; which was before December, 2018, when he declared in a video that “We have won against ISIS. Our boys, our young women, our men — they’re all coming back, and they’re coming back now!”; which was before last Sunday, when National Security Adviser John Bolton announced in Israel that 2,000 U.S. troops would remain in Syria until Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised not to attack our Kurdish allies fighting ISIS in Syria; which was before Monday, when Trump tweeted, “We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”; which was before yesterday, when Erdogan canceled a scheduled meeting with Bolton and told the Turkish parliament, “It is not possible for us to swallow the message Bolton gave from Israel.”
So we’re pulling out of Syria, or we aren’t, or maybe we will sometime in the future, or maybe not depending on what the ISIS guys do, or something anyway. Got that?
Well, having dealt with Syria, Trump wasn’t finished. Two days after he tweeted his order to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, he announced that he will be drawing down American forces in Afghanistan by half, sending as many as 7,000 troops home.
National Security Adviser Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are currently jetting around Israel, and Jordan, and Egypt and Turkey on a magical mystery tour trying to “reassure” allies that the Trump strategy for Syria and the rest of the Middle East is a “coherent” one, and that they’ve got nothing to worry about.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, the foreign policy establishment and defense intellectual elites are in a conniption fit over Trump’s “abrupt” and “impulsive” decisions on Syria and Afghanistan. The likes of Iraq-hawk Max Boot at the Washington Post are wringing their hands so furiously, you could probably feel the wind they’re generating at the Arctic Circle. The situation is so dire over there right now, ISIS “is poised to make a comeback in Syria,” according to the frantic panicked Boot.
“We have seen the Islamic State pull off just such a resurrection in the past: Under its previous guise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, it had been all but defeated by 2011 when President Barack Obama ordered a pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. Before long the terrorist group was stronger than ever, establishing a brutal caliphate sprawling across Syria and Iraq.”
See? That’s what happens when you let surrender monkeys be in charge! They don’t listen to “experts” like Boot, fellow hawk Robert Kaplan, or New York Times hand-wringer-in-chief David Brooks, and look what happens! Terrorists running amok with mobile chemical weapons labs and hidden nuclear weapons facilities and . . . oops . . . that was Iraq in the run-up to our invasion in 2003, which was a decision that wasn’t made impetuously in the kind of fact-free environment Trump favors. No, it was a decision urged upon a gullible President George W. Bush by knowledgeable sober-minded intellectual armchair warriors like Boot and Kaplan, and it was the decision that caused the whole mess we find ourselves in today.
Here’s the problem the foreign policy establishment finds itself in: Trump may not be “coherent,” but he is right. We never should have invaded Iraq in the first place. We should have removed ourselves from Afghanistan the week after we removed al-Qaeda and the Taliban government from that country. We wouldn’t find ourselves in Syria “in overall control, perhaps indefinitely, of an area comprising nearly a third of Syria, a vast expanse of mostly desert terrain roughly the size of Louisiana,” according to the Washington Post. This, with a force of only 2,000 lightly armed soldiers supported by airpower and our Kurdish allies.
As for Afghanistan, what more need be said than 17 years? That’s how long we’ve been mucking about, killing Afghans and losing American lives over there. All the Washington foreign policy pooh-bahs are tearing their hair out because Trump is reducing our forces in Afghanistan from 14,000 to 7,000, which will supposedly lead to a loss of control of the country by the government in Kabul.
The fact is, neither the coalition forces nor the Afghan government were ever in control in the first place. I was in Afghanistan in 2004, when we had 20,300 troops in that country. You’d think we had things pretty well in hand with a force that large, wouldn’t you? Here’s how good things were in Afghanistan in 2004.
Poppies. Poppies as far as you could see. Miles and miles of poppy fields, interspersed with narrow corridors of wheat that farmers grew so they could produce flour with which to bake their bread. There were more fields of poppies than you could count, and all of the gum scraped from their mature seed pods was turned into opium, which was transformed into heroin, which was moved by truck, train, boat, and plane into Europe and the United States where it fed the habits of Western junkies. The opium crop in 2004 was said to be a record. So is the crop of 2018. Every goddamn year has seen another record for opium production in Afghanistan, seventeen years in all, after we drove the Taliban out of power. Growing poppies was illegal under the Taliban, before that.
I had a reporter friend who was embedded with a Provincial Reconstruction Team near Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan. One day, the captain in charge of the team announced that they were going out to check on a well his American soldiers had helped dig for a village of farmers nearby. In no small amount of danger, they drove by convoy for miles into the Afghan boonies, finally stopping at a field of poppies that took up several acres along the roadside. They dismounted from their Humvees and hiked through the field of poppies until they reached the well the reconstruction team had dug for the farmers.
The captain pointed to it proudly, telling my friend that this kind of cooperation between American forces and Afghan locals was what was going to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Before the Americans came, the local villagers had no source of fresh water. They took their water from streams and ditches that were contaminated by livestock feces that caused disease. We gave them fresh water! he exclaimed.
The well was dead center in the field of poppies and was being used to supply a system of canals to irrigate them.
That was when we had things comparatively well in hand in Afghanistan. Let me tell you what it was like driving around in that country. If you were in an American military convoy, you went anywhere you wanted to go. There was the constant threat of mines and IEDs, but nobody stopped you.
If you were in a civilian vehicle, you were constantly stopped by roadblocks manned by militias belonging to local warlords. Their ostensible job was “security,” but what they really did was collect bribes before they’d let you pass. In a country with no real system of collecting taxes, much less enforcing such a system, the roadblocks were one way that local warlords financed their militias and any services they deigned to provide to the populace, not to mention line their own bulging pockets.
The warlords functioned like regional leaders, what in this country might be county supervisors. The central Afghan government in Kabul had no control whatsoever out in the hinterlands along the border with Pakistan I traveled through, going from Jalalabad to Asadabad. The “license plate” on the little Suzuki SUV I was in was a photograph taped to the windshield of the local warlord, signifying allegiance. When you entered a different district controlled by another warlord, you taped a new photo on the windshield and got out your American dollars for new bribes.
That was at a time when we had more than 20,000 troops on the ground, when things were good in Afghanistan.
How are things over there now? Well, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction recently reported that the Afghan government controls only 56 percent of the country’s districts. The Taliban is said to control about 13 percent, and a third of the country is “contested,” according to CNN.
Let me tell you what that means. Whatever “war” we were once fighting in Afghanistan is over. We have lost.
Donald Trump may be an orange-faced buffoon with a blonde muskrat on his head, but when it comes to our foreign and military policies in Afghanistan and Syria, he’s right, and the defense intellectuals and “experts” like Max Boot and Robert Kaplan are wrong. Pompeo’s and Bolton’s magical mystery tour is futile. Everyone over there knows we’ve lost but us. The only thing left to do is tuck our tails between our legs and go home.