President Trump unleashed another blizzard of random chaos this week. In addition to plunging the nation into the uncertainty of a probable government shutdown — which absolutely tanked financial markets — Trump suddenly decided to start pulling troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, which apparently prompted Secretary of Defense James Mattis to submit his resignation.
Even when Trump is doing arguably necessary things (as in Syria) and unquestionably good things (as in Afghanistan) he does it in the most irresponsible way possible. Like everything about his presidency, his foreign policy is an omnishambles.
The Associated Press reports that Trump recently spoke with Tayyip Erdoğan, and the Turkish president pressed him to leave the region, very likely so Erdoğan could have a free hand to massacre Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, who have been loyal U.S. allies in the campaign against ISIS. During the conversation, Trump agreed so abruptly that a nonplussed Erdoğan then cautioned him against over-hasty withdrawal, as — contrary to Trump's assertions — ISIS has not been completely eradicated, and might easily rush into the power vacuum.
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Then Trump decided on a whim that he wanted to cut the U.S. force in Afghanistan in half (from 14,000 to 7,000), prompting a storm of outrage inside the administration, and eventually the resignation of Mattis.
Even many fervently anti-war lefties were a bit queasy at the nature of these announcements. While involving the U.S. in Syria's civil war was a mistake, the situation has also settled into a sort of stalemate in which U.S. forces and proxies are one part of the balance. Simply running out might easily reignite the conflict on all sides — and especially harm the Kurds, who have worked closely with U.S. forces for three years now and surely don't deserve to just be left to Erdoğan's tender mercies.
You can compare this, in a sense, to European colonialism, which is unquestionably the major reason why so many African countries today are poor or simply failed states. Nevertheless, how European powers governed and eventually left their colonies did make a big difference later on. Even if being there was a mistake for all involved, leaving carelessly and abruptly can arguably be worse than not leaving at all, at least in the short to medium term.
Botswana, for instance, was only lightly dominated by the British, the existing native leadership was not massacred, and was granted its independence on reasonably orderly and good terms. (Not coincidentally, huge diamond resources were only discovered after the British left.) But the Congo basin was ruthlessly exploited by first Belgian King Leopold II (who killed perhaps half the entire population in the process of extracting rubber and ivory), then Belgium proper. As European colonialism was patently collapsing around the world, the Belgians gave barely a thought to setting up a functioning independent state, because they wanted to keep exploiting the area's vast raw material supplies. After the country got nominal independence, there was a violent backlash against ongoing Belgian domination, and the entire white population panicked and fled, leaving only a few dozen college graduates to administer a country of 14 million.
The predictable result was civil war, dictatorship, chaos, and death on an apocalyptic scale.
Now, preparing an orderly exit can be a tricky proposition, especially if the situation is already a horrible mess. And one should be leery of the "we must stay or it will be worse" reasoning, as it very easily shades into a justification for continual occupation. The only strong conclusion to draw from this history is that America should not start imperialist wars of aggression in the first place.
Still, in Syria at least, it seems that the U.S. should have negotiated a diplomatic agreement between Turkey, Russia, and Bashar al-Assad to prevent further bloodshed before leaving. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was pursuing something like this before he left office in 2017. It wouldn't be impossible.
It's harder to object to the Afghanistan declaration, as the U.S. failure is a lot less complicated there. For my entire professional career, the U.S. has been losing in Afghanistan, trying and failing to stand up a government that can fend off a handful of militants with pickup trucks, AK-47s, and RPGs. The reason for this, as report after report after report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction shows, is that the Afghan government is monumentally corrupt in large part because of the U.S. occupation, which doles out billions annually with little oversight either of locals or of American contractors. It costs tens of billions of dollars annually, it's not working, and it's almost certainly never going to work. After nearly two decades, the Afghan state is going to have to learn to function, or it will fall to the Taliban — a distinct possibility, but one which can only be delayed by continued occupation.
Still, I would say Trump should have given the Afghan government a few months' warning!
It's foolish to expect either wisdom or prudence from this addle-brained president. Likely as not he will jack up the Afghanistan troop levels again in a few months (as he did in August 2017) after he hires Steve Doocy as secretary of defense. This is what happens when you elect an unstable reality TV star president.
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