Tuesday 16 July 2019

Max Boot: 'Isil and Taliban will grow in strength if US pulls out troops'

US President Donald Trump. Photo: AP
US President Donald Trump. Photo: AP

Max Boot

Donald Trump is already pulling US troops out of Syria, and is likely to pull them out of Afghanistan, too, assuming a tentative peace deal with the Taliban is finalised.

Although Trump initially claimed the United States had won in Syria, the real impetus for both moves is a widespread sense, shared by the US president's supporters and critics alike, that not only aren't we winning, but we can't possibly win these "forever wars," no matter how long we stay.

"There is virtually no possibility of a military victory over the Taliban and little chance of leaving behind a self-sustaining democracy," wrote strategist and travel writer Robert D Kaplan in 'The New York Times'. Veteran diplomats Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, meanwhile, wrote for NPR (National Public Radio) that Isil "isn't Germany or Japan, where the US and its allies broke those regimes' will to fight, destroyed all their war-making capacity, eradicated their fascist state ideologies and helped reshape a new environment for two democratic countries. For the US to achieve that goal in Syria is mission impossible."

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I have enormous respect for these writers, but their observations, while true, are also irrelevant. James Dobbins, a former US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his colleagues at the Rand think tank are closer to the mark when they write: "Winning may not be an available option, but losing certainly is. A precipitous departure, no matter how rationalised, will mean choosing to lose. The result would be a blow to American credibility, the weakening of deterrence and the value of US reassurance elsewhere, an increased terrorist threat emanating from the Afghan region, and the distinct possibility of a necessary return there under worse conditions."

The Rand report is about Afghanistan, but the same analysis applies to Syria.

Neither the Islamic State nor the Taliban is remotely defeated. Isil has lost virtually all its "caliphate", but US Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats just warned that it "still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks, and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world".

The Taliban is doing even better: It controls or contests 44pc of Afghanistan's districts, and inflicting heavy casualties on Afghan security forces. An Afghan general says there are more than 77,000 militants fighting the government - far higher than the official figure of 25,000 to 35,000.

If the United States pulls out of Afghanistan, the Taliban is likely to seize most of the country, and if we pull out of Syria, Islamic State is likely to revive.

In fighting these insurgents, the United States needs to eschew its big war mindset. Yes, there will be no surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri. But even victory in WWII would have been squandered as readily as victory in WWI if the United States hadn't kept troops in Europe and Asia for 73 years and counting. The longer American troops stay anywhere, the greater their chances of achieving our objectives.

When US troops pull out, the consequences are usually costly, whether it's the communist takeover of Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam in 1975, or the rise of the Islamic State after 2011.

And while the Viet Cong weren't trying to attack the American homeland, the Islamic State and al-Qa'ida are. 'The New York Times' reports US intelligence has warned "a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan would lead to an attack on the United States within two years".

Advocates of retreat will argue an open-ended deployment is not sustainable. But that's not true. US troops are volunteers. As long as they aren't taking many casualties, the public isn't opposed to their deployment.

US forces have suffered six fatalities in Syria and 66 in Afghanistan since 2015 - an average of 18 a year. Those losses are tragic, but in 2017 the US military lost 80 service personnel in training accidents. Training is now four times deadlier for American forces than combat.

© Washington Post Syndication

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