With the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and an uptick of violence in Afghanistan, U.S. military strategy is shifting in the Middle East and Central Asia. But the stated goals of the missions still remain a bit unclear.
On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the United States has started a troop draw-down, halving the number of troops in Iraq to roughly 4,000. Those troops will remain primarily for the purposes of training and supporting Iraqi forces, but quoting unnamed Western contractors, the piece also points out that “Dozens of American soldiers have been transported from Iraq to Afghanistan on daily flights over the past week, along with weapons and equipment.”
There are around 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan now, where America is fighting its longest war. An additional 4,000 will be sent there in the coming months, though it’s unclear how 15,000 American soldiers will be able to successfully stave off a persistent presence by the self-proclaimed Islamic State there and also reverse the massive gains made by the Taliban, now active in 70 percent of the country.
And moreover, it’s unclear if counterterrorism is even the biggest priority anymore. In commenting on President Donald Trump’s national security strategy in late January, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that “great-power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
This is happening at the same time that the United States seems to be struggling to articulate a strategy in Syria, which, as of December, held 2,000 U.S. troops. Mattis has stated that troops are engaged in an open-ended mission, while the Syrian government has stated that a permanent U.S. presence there would be viewed as an act of “aggression.” Iran and Russia support the Syrian government and have played key military roles in the defeat of not only ISIS, but of various rebel groups in the ongoing civil war there.
On Monday, the United States and Russia clashed at the U.N. over American claims that the Syrian government is developing new, powerful chemical weapons, revealing the deep rift between the two countries on Syrian soil. The Russian intervention in Syria is only one of the added complications in U.S. attempts to gain and maintain leverage in the region. Turkey, a NATO ally, has also pushed back against the United States in Syria by bombing Kurdish targets at the border and flat-out asking the United States to withdraw from Manbjij, hoping to push through all the way to the Iraqi border.
Chris Bolan, professor of Middle East Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, told ThinkProgress that the draw-down in Iraq makes sense given the “by-with-and-through” strategy that relies on local security partnerships — and the military successes in Iraq against ISIS certainly point to that.
President Trump has repeatedly referred to the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, taking credit for driving the group out of most of its territorial holdings in both countries, highlighting the victory over ISIS as a U.S. victory when he announced his national security Strategy on December 18:
We have dealt ISIS one devastating defeat after another. The coalition to defeat ISIS has now recaptured almost 100 percent of the land once held by these terrorists in Iraq and in Syria. Great job. Really good. Great job. Great job. Really good. Really good. Thank you. Thank you.
One of the tensions in the national defense strategy remains how to downgrade the focus on terrorism while focusing more on competitors such as Russia and China, the former of which is flexing its muscles in Syria and the latter making its economic interests known in Afghanistan.
“The Iraqis will continue this fight, with the U.S. clearly in support,” Bolan said. And given that fighting always kicks up in the spring and summer in Afghanistan, having more troops there also seems based in good logic. But counting on 15,000 U.S. troops to have a “multiplying effect” with Afghan partners without a political solution (which seems elusive at this point) will deliver only short-term victory.
“Anyone has to be skeptical for prospects for that actually yielding a decisive victory in a counter-terrorism fight,” said Bolan, adding,”If you outlast the counter-insurgent, you’ve got some sort of victory at hand, so all the have to do is out-wait us.”
And if the Taliban can out-wait the United States in Afghanistan, then Iran can certainly do the same — in Iraq and in Syria, where it helped in the fight against ISIS, but remains largely at odd with U.S. objectives — if only by virtue of its geography.
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spelled out U.S. goals in Syria, he mentioned Russia and Iran’s support of President Bashar al-Assad as an issue, but it remains unclear if the U.S. has any cards to play there at all. Bolan said that U.S. troop presence there is the only leverage the Trump administration has in Syria in staving off Iranian and Russian domination.
It’s unclear what the U.S. mission in Syria is right now, said Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.
“There’s not much clarity in open sources on what, exactly, they’re doing,” said Alvi, who emphasized that her views do not reflect those of the U.S. War College, U.S. Navy or Department of Defense.
“If the mission was counter-terrorism or anti-ISIS, as it was in Iraq, then that’s pretty much resolved,” she said, and even though ISIS ideology will remain and difficult to counter (“you cannot defeat an ideology militarily,” she said), it’s unclear what more the United States can do in Iraq and Syria.
Losing territory to the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan has likely prompted the reshuffle of troops that we’re seeing, she said, but that doesn’t mean all is settled in Iraq.
“ISIS came out of the ashes of Iraq, post 2007, after fighting in Fallujah left al-Qaeda in Iraq decimate…ISIS emerged from those ashes. So just because people think that ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria right now, and that is a great achievement, the caveat is that we’ve seen this before,” said Alvi.
The path forward, said Alvi, is not so clear-cut any more.
“Our leverage is much less, in my view, relative to regional politics and strategy than before, and I don’t just mean the Obama administration,” she said, adding that decades and decades of poor policy-making has resulted in the United States largely “going in circles” in the region.
“We’re kind of at a disadvantage in terms of overall strategic leverage in terms of how important Syria is to us,” said Bolan, adding that despite being a Shia country in a sea of Sunni countries, Iran has managed to “play a strategically weak hand phenomenally well.”
“Ultimately, terrorism is a manageable threat,” he said. “But how do you disengage from the region to devote additional resources to these more strategic issues in the region, ” he added.
“The big strategic hole we have is that we haven’t had a larger political strategy that marshals all the non-military instruments of power: diplomacy, economics, finance, law enforcement…to actually get to the root causes that fuel the rise of these terrorist groups,” he said, referring to Mattis’s response to the State Department budget cuts: “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”