Trump's Troop Withdrawal in Afghanistan: Part 2 – Is There Even a "Trump Doctrine"?News Abroad
tags: foreign policy, military history, war on terror, Afghanistan, Taliban, Donald Trump
Professor Brian Glyn Williams worked for the US Army’s Information Operations team at ISAF HQ in Kabul, Afghanistan and for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center in the Pashtun belt. He is author of seven books including The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime (Chicago Press Review/Harper Collins) and Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America’s Longest War (University of Penn. Press). His website can be found at: brianglynwilliams.com
Editor's note: Part 1 of this essay can be read here.
Even as Donald Trump discussed pulling America out of NATO, tried withdrawing US troops from South Korea, moved to pull 12,000 troops out of Germany, withdrew America’s effective 1,000 man fighting force from Kurdish areas in Syria, and ordered a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq by January 20, 2021 as part of his policy of ending “senseless wars,” he manifested a militaristic foreign policy that almost led America into two major and potentially high casualty wars in Asia.
The Inconsistencies of Trump’s Military Retreatism.
While Trump as a candidate had previously attacked Obama for “cutting and running” from Iraq, he pivoted to attacking America’s overseas military engagements during the 2016 Republican presidential runoffs. During and after the debates, Trump took a sledgehammer to the sacred cows of Republican Orthodoxy and attacked George W. Bush’s costly war in Iraq as a cudgel to mock and belittle the Republican Party’s anointed heir Jeb Bush. In so doing, Trump broke a taboo in the Republican Party which stated that no one could criticize Bush’s highly unpopular war in Iraq, which Democrats and the undecided largely believed had been premised on false weapons of mass destruction claims (majorities of Republicans up until this point still believed the US had found WMDs in Iraq). Among other criticisms of the WMD-based war, Trump said “It's one of the worst decisions in the history of the country. We have totally destabilized the Middle East."
As Trump went on to highjack the presidential nomination from the establishment, millions of Republicans, as if coming out of a trance, came to see overseas wars of the sort they had strongly supported in Iraq and Afghanistan as (in Trump’s terms) “senseless,” “endless,” and “pointless” interventions in lands of “sand and blood.” Taking their cue from the isolationist president, Trump’s followers even began to describe once-exalted Pentagon generals as warmongers working for the military industrial complex. Under Trump, a party that had unquestionably stood by Bush during the era of the muscular Bush Doctrine (which posited that America had the right to invade any country that harbored terrorists) defined by such jingoist slogans as “shock and awe,” “freedom fries,” the “axis of evil,” and a full-scale invasion of Iraq to find non-existent WMDs, came to have a cynical “we-don’t-give-a-shitism” view of the Pentagon’s overseas military operations.
When Trump impulsively decided to withdraw a small contingent of 1,000 highly effective US Special Forces from the fragile pro-American, pro-Christian, pro-women’s rights, secular, democratic autonomy in northern Syria that was protected by the Pentagon, many of Trump’s Christian followers living in the world’s greatest democracy dutifully applauded. As Trump green-lit an October 2019 Turkish jihadist invasion of the Kurds’ pro-American democracy, Trump’s followers seemed unconcerned about the fate of America’s stalwart Kurdish allies who sacrificed 11,000 of their fighters’ lives defeating ISIS as loyal Pentagon proxies. As thousands of terrified Armenian Christians, Syriac Christians, and their Kurdish allies fled Turkey’s brutal conquest of their fragile democracy, the delighted Iranian, Russian, and Syrian government alliance moved in to invade it from the southwest. As Iran celebrated America’s unforced retreat from Syria, Trump and his followers washed their hands of the chaos he created in a land where America had stalwart allies.
One of the greatest beneficiaries of Trump’s unilateral, chaotic retreat from Syria was Iran, but this seemed not to bother the president’s supporters who had ironically once supported Bush’s aggressive “Axis of Evil” rhetoric towards Iran. When Trump proclaimed “Iran can do what they want there [in Syria]” his base agreed to the unforced surrender of US influence in this strategic land and the rise of the ayatollahs’ influence in post-US troop drawdown Syria.
And this brings up the inconsistencies of Trump’s wildly praised (among his newly isolationist base followers) policy of what can best be described as “global retreatism.” For all his followers’ unquestioning approval of Trump’s shocking betrayal of the Syrian Kurds, recent November 2020 calls for troops drawdown from Afghanistan and Iraq, and his recent dismantling of the Defeat-ISIS Task Force (whose mission of defeating a regrouping ISIS, I argue, is far from completed), it is Trump who brought America close to two potentially catastrophic major wars in Asia.
Under the influence of Republican hawks like former national security advisor John Bolton, Trump commenced a series of aggressive actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2018 that led America to the brink of war. To ostensibly punish Iran for its militancy in, ironically, Syria, the Trump administration unilaterally shredded the multilateral, successful nuclear agreement signed by Obama with Iran. While Iran had shipped its nuclear material to Russia in compliance with the agreement and was seen by the other multilateral signatories including Britain, France, and Russia as faithfully complying with the nuclear treaty, Trump declared a unilateral and devastating economic war on Iran. To weaken the Islamic Republic of Iran’s involvement in places like Syria (which Trump of course later abandoned to Iranian Revolutionary Guard militias and the Iranian-backed Syrian government in 2019), the Trump administration imposed draconian sanctions on Iran in 2018. As part of his dangerous brinksmanship with Tehran, Trump also ordered the killing of its highest-ranking military official, General Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike in January 2020.
An increasingly infuriated Iran finally responded to the crippling sanctions and the assassination of its most respected general with fury. It rained missiles down on US bases in Iraq and came perilously close to killing US personnel serving in them (a sizeable number of troops suffered brain injuries in the attack). Had Americans died in this barrage of missiles, the Pentagon was under orders to bomb Iran itself, certainly a slippery slope to a major Middle Eastern armed conflict. It should be stressed that a conflict with Iran, which has a far stronger army, navy, and air-force than the smaller, sanctions-crippled Iraq did in 2003, would have been a far bloodier affair than the “senseless” war in Afghanistan which has cost America just 1,865 killed in action.
As Trump brought America to the brink of war with Iran’s army of over half a million, his theoretically isolationist followers, who had come to mock the Pentagon generals as “warmongers,” nonetheless dutifully lined up behind him to bang the drums of war. Without any awareness of the hypocrisy, inconsistency and cognitive dissonance they were engaged in, they full-throatedly supported Trump in abandoning America’s democratic Kurdish allies in Syria to the Iranians in the name of “ending endless wars”…even as they supported a potential full-scale war with Iran designed to curtail its influence in places like Syria.
But it was not only in Iran where Trump—the “ender of endless wars”—took America to the brink of a full-scale war with a unified and well-armed nuclear enemy. In the first year and half of his administration Trump engaged in dangerous brinkmanship with North Korea. Threatening to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea, Trump drew the country so close to war that his generals said they slept with their uniforms on in case a nuclear strike was launched at night. Again Trump’s anti-“senseless” wars base loyally supported his dangerous saber-rattling as sensible.
And, while it was not widely reported, in November of 2020 Trump again brought America to the edge of war with Iran. In what was undoubtedly a “wag the dog” attempt to launch a public relations bonanza war with Iran, Trump ordered his Secretary of Defense Mike Pompeo to “go wild” on Iran and considered bombing its nuclear facilities. As in the case with North Korea, it was the civilian military leadership and Pentagon generals, who ironically enough have come to be described as “warmongers” by Trump’s followers, who backed Trump away from the edge and convinced him not to launch a war against Iran.
There is no consistent, overarching strategic vision to Trump’s attempts to remove US troops from South Korea, Germany, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, while at the same time leading America perilously close to sending troops to wage new wars against two nuclear states. And far from working to enhance American security, it is Trump, the real “Master of Chaos,” who is attempting to dismantle America’s longstanding policy of supporting allied democracies in order to make the world a safer place for America.
The Rationale for Not Engaging in Retreatism in Afghanistan
All of the above brings us to Trump, the selective “ender of endless “wars’,” and his latest act of American retrenchment, the November troop drawdown order in Afghanistan (he has also ordered troops withdrawn from Iraq where many fear Iranian-backed militias will fill the void). From the historical perspective, this is a dangerous decision that is bound to not only weaken a key American democratic ally, but destabilize the strategic heart of Eurasia. It will also be yet another example of Trump upending decades of American foreign policy designed over the last 75 years to support democratic allies like the Kurds of Syria. A glance at history will show that when America invested in building and protecting democracies in post-World War II Germany and Japan, it created loyal bastions of pro-American democracy in the Pacific and in Western Europe. In just one generation, these two nations that had engaged in the Holocaust in Europe and war crimes like the Rape of Nanking in China became dependable American allies and exemplars of democratic stability.
While many Republicans at the time fought against the farsighted Marshall Plan, which pumped billions of dollars into rebuilding post-World War II Germany and Japan, this investment in America’s future paid tremendous dividends. Germany went on to become NATO’s strongest force in Cold War Europe and I myself met German NATO troops serving in Kunduz, Afghanistan to support the US after we were attacked on 9/11. While post-Taliban Afghanistan is not a modern nation state like post-World War II Japan or Germany, it is a US ally whose allied government serves to spread American values and support the Pentagon’s counter-terrorism efforts in a strategic part of the world. America for example used it as a base for flying drones over Iran to monitor its nuclear program, which of course was ostensibly Trump’s main focus in the region.
By supporting Japan and other democracies, including those that gave the Pentagon basing rights, the US established the ideal, and to a lesser extent the reality, of a global Pax Americana. This objective should extend to Afghanistan today. Ever since the end of World War II, America has been a beacon of hope for democratic aspirations everywhere, a force of global stabilization, and “the indispensable nation.” While it has made catastrophic mistakes, such as the wars in Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Pax Americana model has had its successes too. America can be a benign hegemon that works for global stability, not Trumpian “America First” chaos. While the US certainly engaged in un-democratic overreach as part of its global anti-Communist policies during the Cold War (for example, it supported the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected socialist leader Salvador Allende and armed murderous anti-Communist, right wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua) for the most part, the US has worked to promote democracy. Supporting human rights and democracy is a stated goal of US foreign policy. The US has also worked around the globe to protect human life.
When Orthodox Christians Serbs in the Balkans launched a war of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian and Albanian Muslims in 1990s, the US led NATO in preventing genocide. When a tsunami devastated Indonesia and Thailand in 2004, it was American aircraft carrying supplies and relief ships that arrived first to treat survivors and dispense medical supplies. When Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010, it was US George H.W. Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton who together called upon Americans to assist in the rebuilding of that impoverished country. When China’s Communist government created a vast gulag of prison camps to “reeducate” Turkic-Mongol Uighur Muslims in 2015, America led the way in condemning this gross violation of human rights (although Trump ended this policy of sanctions). And it was America’s scientists that developed vaccines for smallpox and COVID 19 that were, and will be, shipped around the world.
I myself have seen the tremendous impact that the “indispensable nation” has had as force of good in the world in places like Bosnia and Kosovo where I found widespread gratitude for America for saving them from genocide and emulation of our democratic way of life. And certainly I have seen the positive impact America has had in Afghanistan by toppling the tyrannical Taliban’s fundamentalist regime and providing tens of millions with the hope of living in a freer world. Afghanistan, whose cruel Taliban masters once hung TV sets from telephone poles as “Satan boxes,” now has five TV channels that expose this once isolated people to the world. Even the smallest villages now have internet service and I have many friends in Afghanistan who are my friends on Facebook.
In government controlled parts of Afghanistan today, women who were once stoned in Kabul on Fridays by the Taliban’s religious police for moral crimes now make up one-third of the Afghan parliament. Women and girls can be seen walking in confidence wearing headscarves in Kabul instead of Taliban-enforced burkas. Boys can fly kites or play soccer, which were banned by the Taliban’s dreaded moral police, and most importantly, over the last twenty years a new generation of millions of children have been raised getting secular education instead of (only boys) being brainwashed in fundamentalist madrassas. Far from serving as an incubator for jihadi fanaticism as it was under the Taliban, Afghanistan now has a democratically elected government that supports women’s and minorities’ rights, fights terrorism, and is a trusted American ally. While progress in Afghanistan, an undeveloped land that has seen warfare ever since 1978, has been slow, a vast societal change is underway in much of the country, and this benefits America, just as the transformation of post World War II Japan and Germany benefited America.
While the fate of millions of Afghans, who are grateful to America for stability, modernity, democracy and freedom, is as irrelevant to Trump as the fate of the stalwart pro-American democratic Syrian Kurds was, this strategic country’s fate should matter to Americans on both a compassionate, humanitarian level and on domestic security grounds. While many Americas are myopic in global sense and often proudly disconnected from the troubles of the world, it has been a hallmark of far sighted American domestic security policy since the start of the Cold War to make America safe by supporting democratic allies abroad. This has the aim of preventing exactly the sort of state implosion and creation of an anti-American terrorist sanctuary that was seen in Afghanistan when the CIA shortsightedly abandoned the country in 1989 after pumping millions to arm the anti USSR mujahideen freedom fighters.
The Pentagon does not wage war for the sake of waging war and the generals clearly see it in America’s interest to prevent the fall of Afghanistan’s democracy to an extremist fundamentalist regime that supports terrorism against the American “Great Satan.” Bolstering the Afghan Army with a dedicated “light footprint” mission and keeping the tribes on the government’s side is a far better strategy for maintaining the security benefits from the Pax Americana than Trump’s chaos-inducing, anti-democratic, and impulse-driven retreatism.
I have seen the dedication of America’s fighting men and women to the mission in Afghanistan while working for the US Army under the legendary General McCrystal, who has been attacked by Trump along with other generals like David Petraeus and William McRaven (Trump has proclaimed he knows “more than the generals” and berated top Pentagon generals as “dopes and babies” who were too loyal to “worthless” allies). Unlike Trump, who has a cold, transactional, Manhattan real estate developer view towards allies, the members of my US Army Information Operations team in Afghanistan shared a remarkably idealistic view of or our mission and deep sense of loyalty to our Afghan National Army “terps” (interpreters), base perimeter guards, and partners on joint missions.
I was impressed by dedication of the fighting men and women around me to their mission. They believed in tracking down and killing terrorists who plotted the 9/11 attacks, as well as attacks in Madrid, London, and Turkey, and around the world. They also believed in protecting the Afghan people from these very terrorists who threw disfiguring acid in the face of brave school girls, who risked their lives for an education, and decapitated school teachers as “messengers of sinful Western education.” Unlike the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan with a “collective punishment” mentality that led to genocidal killing of 1.5 million Afghans in the 1980s, the American troops I served with genuinely believed in reaching the “hearts and minds” of Afghans. No one epitomized this sense of idealism and dedication to the mission in Afghanistan more than a friend of mine, a former Green Beret captain named Mark Nutsch (portrayed as the leader of a horse mounted team that fought alongside Dostum by Thor actor Chris Hemsworth in the movie 12 Strong) who returned to Afghanistan on several occasions with his retired teammates to bring books for impoverished Afghan school children.
I saw tremendous respect and admiration for idealism-driven US soldiers like Nutsch and American efforts to rebuild Afghanistan during my journeys across this land. My experiences of Afghan admiration for America ranged from Afghan friends who cried the first time they acquired a previously-banned TV and DVD player and saw the movie Titanic, to going to a memorial service in Kabul for a brave Afghan journalist who was beheaded by the insurgents for his honest reporting on Taliban war crimes. My experiences included meeting a little school girl named Zara who poised for a picture with me outside of her newly built school and proudly showed a prized notepad and pen provided by an American charity. The image of Zara stayed with me long after I left Afghanistan. It was the hope in her eyes for brighter future that stuck with me the most and made me proud of America’s accomplishment in this long suffering land that yearned for freedom.
While it is difficult for many Americans who, like Trump, see the Pentagon’s wars in places like Afghanistan as “senseless” to believe in America’s “light footprint mission” there, I believe that sacrificing millions of Zaras to the butchery of the bloody Taliban tormentors of this nation for Fox News optics is as unconscionable as Trump abandoning Syrian Kurds to Turkish Islamist jihadi invaders, Iran, Russia and the genocidal Syrian government was in 2019. For all the fact that Trump has poisoned the well of many Republicans’ belief in the security goals of the Pentagon’s overseas missions, the very generals who walked Trump from back brink of launching a full-scale war with nuclear North Korea and Iran should be trusted to hold the line in Afghanistan with a remarkably small “aid and assist” force of just 4,500. This should be done not just for the sake of our country, but for Afghanistan, Eurasia and the world. It is only by continuing to be the “indispensable nation” in defending allies around the increasingly inter-connected globe in furtherance of the democratic values it espouses that the Pax Americana that has brought freedom and democracy to lands ranging from the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan to Tokyo, Seoul, Sarajevo, and Berlin can be maintained to the benefit of the American people.