August 27, 2017

Trump’s Afghanistan strategy offers glimpses for US policies in Middle East

Long-term commitment. Special Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy Hugo Llorens (R) and top US commander in Afghanistan US Army General John Nicholson speak during a news conference in Kabul, on August 24. (Reuters)

Washington - US President Donald Trump’s new strategy for the war against mil­itants in Afghanistan offers some glimpses for Washington’s approach to Mid­dle East matters.
In a speech August 21, Trump said he decided to go against his instinct to pull US troops out of Afghanistan 16 years after they were sent there following the at­tacks of September 11, 2001. Dur­ing discussions with aides before he unveiled the strategy, Trump reportedly vented his frustration with a drawn-out war that has cost the lives of more than 2,000 US service personnel and shows no sign of ending.
In his speech, however, he said a hasty US retreat from Afghani­stan would create a vacuum that could give extremist groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) a chance to grow stronger.
Trump’s plan opens the way for the deployment of about 4,000 additional troops, reinforcing the 8,000 US troops in Afghanistan. Trump insisted that the United States was not interested in es­tablishing a Western-style democ­racy in Kabul. “We are not nation-building again,” he said. “We are killing terrorists.”
Reports said the new strategy came after months of sometimes bitter debates within the admin­istration. While populist aides wanted the United States to with­draw from Afghanistan, a faction led by national security adviser H.R. McMaster argued for troop reinforcements and eventually won the day. Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, both former mili­tary men, are on McMaster’s side.
The ex-generals’ growing influ­ence over Trump is one takeaway from the Afghanistan debate that could have repercussions for the Middle East, where the United States is involved in the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. “Critics will conclude that the generals are now telling him what to do,” Alex Vatanka, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said in reference to Trump.
Vatanka drew attention to an­other aspect of Trump’s Afghani­stan approach: The president refused to set a time limit on the US engagement, arguing that his strategy was based on “condi­tions on the ground.” That means that militants will not be able to focus on survival until an even­tual US withdrawal, Vatanka said. “Extremists will no longer have the luxury of playing the game of waiting” for the Americans to leave. “It’s different when you think that the United States will be there for another 35 years.”
Trump’s open disdain for the concept of nation-building and his insistence that the United States is focused on fighting extrem­ists could have consequences for the conflict in Syria. In the past, Washington has called for a re­moval of Syrian President Bashar Assad from office but Trump is de­termined to concentrate on ISIS.
“This administration wants to abandon our former vision of na­tion-building in the Arab world,” Richard W. Murphy, a former US ambassador to Syria who works for the Middle East Institute, said via e-mail. While the US role in Syria “cannot be reduced sim­ply to killing terrorists,” political complexities were “contributing to the drift in US policy towards increased accommodation with the Assad regime,” he added.
Trump’s sharp words for Paki­stan, a country he accused of har­bouring extremist groups hostile to the United States, might serve as a warning for some Middle East players such as Turkey, US observ­ers say. American officials have complained that Turkey has al­lowed radical Islamist groups to gain strength in the Turkish-Syri­an border region, a charge Ankara denies.
Analysts warned conclusions from Trump’s Afghanistan speech for the Middle East had to be drawn carefully. Although sev­eral NATO countries joined the fight in Afghanistan, the United States is by far the most impor­tant foreign player in the country. By contrast, the situation in Syria and Iraq is marked by the involve­ment of many different countries and groups pursuing a multitude of interests.
“The situations in Syria and Iraq differ from that of Afghanistan given the important roles played by others in those conflicts,” Mur­phy said. “Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are major players in Syria while Iran and Turkey and increasingly Saudi Arabia are sig­nificant in Iraq.”
In another important difference, Trump and his administration are holding the door open to a politi­cal settlement in Afghanistan that could involve the Taliban, while no such scenario is being contem­plated in Syria with respect to rad­ical groups there.
“Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settle­ment that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Trump said in his speech. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “There are certain moderate elements of the Taliban who we think are go­ing to be ready and want to help develop a way forward.”