With the suddenness of revelation, withdrawal from Syria and “drawdown” from Afghanistan have been announced by Donald Trump. In the past, such announcements were followed up with a tidy pattern: Two steps forward, one step back. But this time debate and hesitation have been foreclosed. Witness the way Defence Secretary James Mattis is being shown the door because he finds himself not on the same page as the President.
Pundits will have difficulty digesting the proposition that President Trump is setting out to do in Syria, Afghanistan, the Mexican border, Russia, what he had promised during the election campaign right up to its closing days in November 2016. He suddenly turned up in Baghdad to signal his disapproval of the mess his predecessors made of that expedition. Some cameos will be forgotten in the rush of news that must be expected.
I have followed Syria closely since August 2011 when I found myself in President Bashar al Assad’s office in Damascus. His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, knitted her brows when I pointed out the ease with which US Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford, along with his French counterpart, were driving around Hama, Homs, Daraa, all centres of agitation, meeting anti-Assad insurgents. “Just shows how penetrated we were,” Shaaban said. The past tense is important.
Like colour revolutions elsewhere, the initial ignition was amplified by the global media to mobilise opinion in the region and beyond. An article by James Glanz and John Markoff in the New York Times gave graphic descriptions of the technology designed by the Obama administration to bypass state communication controls and to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that “dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments”. Did I hear someone wail that Russia interferes in other countries?
Against this backdrop, let me fast forward to Trump’s interview with Jake Tapper of the CNN just before the elections. “Where do you think have billions of dollars’ worth of arms — and cash — gone in the course of our involvement in Syria? To the extremists, of course: I believe so.”
Trump was right. Obama’s Defence Secretary Ashton Carter made several humiliating Syria-related announcements. His face in the lower mould, Carter announced that the $500 million project to train “rebels” in Syria was discontinued because arms reached groups the US intended to fight.
That the US intelligence agencies were mixed up with militant groups became more or less clear in subsequent leaks. An admission that Obama made to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in August 2015 when the rise of the ISIS was the big story is revealing. Friedman asked Obama why he had not bombed the ISIS when it first reared its head. The interview was given in August 2015. Obama minced no words. “That we did not just start taking a bunch of air strikes all across Iraq as soon as the IS came in was because that would have taken the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.” ISIS was, in other words, an asset then.
Maliki was in bad odour with the Obama establishment because he refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement, “that would have involved the surrender of Iraqi sovereignty”. In this stand Maliki had the support of the Shia establishment at Najaf led by Grand Ayatullah Sistani. This stance of Sistani’s placed him on the wrong side of the American media. There is delicious irony in this. The media sang paeans of the high priest in 2005. In fact Friedman had written a column proposing Sistani for the Nobel Prize for the constructive role he played in inviting Iraqi Shias, an overwhelming majority in the country, to help stabilise electoral democracy.
True, a structure for the practice of democracy is in place in Baghdad but the Two River Civilisation has been ripped apart and terrorism is endemic. On this too Trump, in his conversation with Tapper, pulls no punches: “Saddam Hussain and Qaddafi may have been bad men but there was no terrorism in their countries. What we have created is terrorism.”
There have been many false troop withdrawal alarms in the past, even during the Trump years. The Syrian army, aided by the Russians, appeared to be in control, until the next eruption, in Aleppo, Del Azour, Idlib, anywhere. The motivation to keep the pressure up on Assad came principally from Riyadh. But a somewhat lame duck post-Khashoggi, it is winding down in Yemen and probably lacking in spunk vis-a-vis Syria. A greater credibility therefore attends announcement of troop withdrawal on this occasion.
Trump’s announcement of drawing down troops in Afghanistan has coincided with the appointment of Amrullah Saleh as Minister of Interior. He is a Tajik, former spymaster and close adviser to the late Ahmad Shah Masood and a persistent critic of Pakistan’s role in the Afghan civil war. Let me share with you a flavour of Saleh’s thinking when I met him in Kabul a few years ago.
“The enemy is headquartered in Pakistan and he should be defeated there. For the US, the ‘expendable’ part of the Taleban is in Afghanistan. Why would we ever collaborate with NATO who wish to kill Afghans they consider expendable? NATO has no strategy in the region because it has no policy towards Pakistan. They know they cannot defeat the Afghan Taleban without hitting hard at their bases in Pakistan.”
Much water has flown down the Kabul river since Saleh spoke to me. Trump’s newly-appointed Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has also tried to correct the image attached to him, that of being anti-Pakistan. During a recent visit to Islamabad, Secretary of State Mike Pampeo gave Khalilzad a high profile in his delegation. Much was made of the fact that Khalilzad visited Islamabad before New Delhi. Obviously, Khalilzad would like to get rid of the perception that he proposes a higher profile for India in Afghanistan.
Anyone interested in visually observing the success of India’s policy of “diplomacy by default”, a slow tortoise-like movement, should visit Hauz Rani opposite Max Hospital in Delhi where a virtual Afghan colony has sprung up, eateries et al, harmoniously merging with the landscape.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on [email protected] The views expressed are personal.)