By Hala Mounib
Interventionist policy has deep roots in U.S. history. From the struggle to limit the expansion of communism in the 1900s to the several operations conducted by US military forces on foreign soil, the United States is notoriously known to intervene in other countries in order to fulfill certain agenda that benefits its national interests.
Recently, however, the election of President Donald Trump had caused a paradigm shift in the framework of U.S. foreign policy as he adopted isolationist strategies in areas that have been previously impacted by U.S. interventionism and military presence. This piece examines the debate around the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan and analyses the legitimacy of fears surrounding power vacuums that might be subsequent to the withdrawals.
It was first reported in December by Gordon Lubold and Jessica Donati (2018) that, according to an unnamed U.S. official, plans were made to withdraw around half of the U.S. troops currently stationed in Afghanistan a few days following a “contested decision” to effectively remove all U.S. forces from Syria. This came after President Trump claimed victory against radical Islamist terror group ISIL who operated in the Syrian-Iraqi region (Kyle Rempfer, 2018).
Since then, talks have been taking place between American and Taliban officials to reach a peace-deal and an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops (Mashal, 2019) and this has instigated a heated dispute between strategists and experts; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the talks were premature, hinting that it’s unwise to reduce troops in Afghanistan (Tara Copp, 2019), Afghanistan’s President Ghani emphasized his concern of a failed rushed deal (Mashal, 2019), and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned over strategic misalignment with the President.
The main concern revolves around the potential power vacuum left following the withdrawal of troops from these regions. These are addressed below in each respective state.
According to 2019 factsheets released by the White House, the IS’ territorial caliphate has been defeated and all the lands that were previously occupied have been reclaimed. While some troops will remain stationed in Syria, the majority are to leave Syrian grounds. Trump explained in a briefing at Al Asad Air Base that other states in the region are supposed to contribute to the fight against terrorism and mentioned that countries like Turkey and Russia might be impacted by ISIS if they decide not to contribute in the fight in Syria. He maintained a strong stance regarding the troops wanting to protect the U.S. rather than foreign lands and stated that the U.S. cannot continue to be the “policeman of the world”. Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior advisor, backed him up by saying that “it is time for Syria and Russia to take over the fight against ISIS” (Leo Shane III and Aaron Mehta, 2018).
The concern that this would allow the power vacuum to be occupied by terrorists is unreasonable considering the radical decrease of insurgency in the region. The only legitimate fear would be the rise of Russian power in Syria with the departure of US power.
Since the Assad regime in maintained by the use of force and the external help of Russia, it’s likely that Russia will be able to establish permanent, stronger bases, rendering Syria an intelligence-collection hub in the Middle East.
The situation in Afghanistan is no less complicated. Some experts believe that Afghanistan’s troops are reliant on U.S. forces. Marines Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. has warned that “the Afghan military would dissolve if not for American support” (Gibbons-Neff and Mashal, 2018). Contrastingly, President Ghani’s spokesperson, Haroon Chakansuri, clarified that Afghanistan’s military has been in charge since 2014 and only seeks U.S. forces for training and advice (Amir Shah, 2018).
The power gap in this case might be utilized by the “increasingly aggressive” resurgent Taliban forces (Gibbons-Neff and Mashal, 2018). Additionally, private military contractor Blackwater, currently Academi, published an advertisement in the January-February 2019 issue of Recoil Magazine simply stating ‘We are coming’ (Tara Copp, 2018).
The ad has alerted many to the possibility that the wars in Syria and Afghanistan could become privatized with the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Interference usually leads to conflict, and while the United States, akin to other member states who ratified the UN Charter, carries a responsibility to protect, it certainly shouldn’t be forced to contribute in places where wars and conflicts are incessant and lead to high American body-counts.
The Unites States isn’t responsible for the messy relations of other countries nor their lack of ability to secure their territories and jurisdictions. The withdrawal of troops greatly benefits the United States; it brings back home men and women who have borne the responsibility and sacrificed for the peace and security of foreign lands. While a U.S. orthodox, interventionism bears a huge amount of losses and should no longer be employed in Syria and Afghanistan.
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Hala Mounib is a Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute